Taking care of an aging parent or loved one is an extremely meaningful and important role. However, it is widely known that caregiving duties can take up a significant part of a person’s life. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s lasts an average of four to eight years though it is not unusual to last up to 20 years. Caregivers make incredible time sacrifices, spending countless days per month on tasks such as shopping, food preparation, housekeeping, transportation and administering medication; and additional time on feeding, dressing, grooming, walking, bathing and other vital activities.
With a seemingly endless list of tasks and responsibilities, caregivers often find themselves dealing with their own health issues such as stress, frustration and depression. Four of every 10 caregivers consider their caregiving situation to be highly stressful, and nearly half of higher-hour caregivers find their role emotionally stressful, per the Family Caregiver Alliance. They often must communicate on their loved one’s behalf to doctors, lawyers and agencies asking complicated questions that they might not always know the answer to. All this coupled with the fact that more than one-third (34 percent) of caregivers are over 65, can leave caregivers feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
While caregivers’ lives are radically (and sometimes unexpectedly) changed by caring for an aging loved one, they are also put in a uniquely difficult position as sympathy and concern tend to focus solely on the care recipient. At this time of year, senior heath and healthy aging is on the minds of many. But as a caregiver, it is important not to forget your own health. To begin your self-care journey, consider the following:
1. Stay organized:
Make sure that you have access to important medical and legal documents and keep them organized and up to date to ensure that medical visits and consultations go as smoothly as possible.
2. Stay healthy:
Caregivers tend to be in worse physical shape compared to non-caregivers, due to mental health problems coupled with the physical strains of caregiving taking a toll on their body. It’s crucial to stay healthy so you can provide the best care to your loved one. Take breaks, exercise, eat healthy food and drink plenty of water. Keep up on your own doctor’s visits; let your primary care provider know that you are a caregiver and don’t hesitate to mention any symptoms or concerns you might have.
3. Stay positive:
Maintain good mental health by using stress relief techniques such as meditation, a simple way to calm your mind and lessen the stress of caring for a loved one. There are many online resources or apps to help you learn how to meditate and that can provide daily meditations. Coping skills can help you address the stress and concern that comes with the responsibility of being a primary caregiver.
4. Find support:
Find out if there are caregiver resources in your community such as support groups where you can share experiences and discuss solutions with others who understand what you’re going through. Try to stay connected with family and friends who can offer you emotional support, such as getting together once a week to take a walk.
5. Accept help:
Always say yes when someone offers help. Be proactive by creating a list of ways that others can help you, such picking up groceries, providing transportation or cooking a healthy dinner.
6. Know that you are valued and appreciated:
Being a caregiver can be very rewarding, but there will be times when you feel underappreciated or that things aren’t getting better, no matter how hard you try. Pat yourself on the back for taking on one of the toughest jobs there is. This is a unique situation and you’re doing the best you can.
Managing the stress in your life, especially as you’re aging, is just as important as any of your other responsibilities. If you take care of yourself, you will be able to better care for someone else.
Smita Wadhwani, RN, is director of case management, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.