November is National Family Caregiver Month, a time to honor the approximately 53 million Americans who give generously of their time and energy to help maximize quality of life for family members with health needs. Family caregivers do a “superhero” job of it, working for love and loyalty with little outside support, often while managing parenting duties and full-time jobs.
To call it “challenging” would be an understatement. If you’ve been in the “caregiver” role for any length of time, you may consider “impossible” a better word—and would doubtless agree on “stressful” at least. Whatever your family’s specific situation, caregiving requirements inevitably include extra expenses, extra to-dos, and the occasional “drop everything else” emergency.
Amidst all of which you may feel you have no time to take care of yourself. Or you may feel guilty about “neglecting” your family member to spend any time on self-care. Watch out: you may be wandering onto the road of nonstop self-neglect, which ultimately leads to chronic fatigue, resentment of the “burden” imposed by your family member, and getting sick yourself from the stress. If you give up taking care of yourself, you’ll soon be in no condition to take care of anyone else.
Consider self-care an investment in your loved one’s well-being.
Our Top Self-Care Tips
- Don’t hesitate to ask for—or request—help. Friends, neighbors, and extended-family members are usually glad to pick up dinner or fill in as caretaker for the evening. And don’t ignore the possibility that your care recipient may themselves be able and eager to help out. Too many caregivers fall into the trap of treating the recipient as 100 percent helpless, which leads to their either resenting you or developing an entitlement attitude.
- Involve yourself in therapy and a support group. It does wonders for your resilience to be able to tell others how you feel, to be assured you aren’t alone or a “bad” person, and to get advice from others who’ve been there.
- Make literal appointments for alone time, time with other loved ones, and time to do things with your care recipient beyond just caregiving. If you’re at all spiritual, include meditation appointments or appointments with your Higher Power. “Appointment” means writing a specific time slot into your calendar, and letting nothing interfere with it save the direst of emergencies (which do not include last-minute “could you help me with just one thing?” requests).
- Eat healthy. This comprises not just what you eat (more beans/fish/fresh vegetables/whole grains; less fried foods and sweets), but how you eat. Take at least twenty minutes to sit down, chew slowly, and savor your meals. Gulping things down is bad for your metabolism.
- Get daily exercise. No, you don’t have to invest in a gym membership you probably won’t use. Nor do you need a two-hour, exercise-exclusive spot on your daily calendar. You don’t even have to call it exercise: just keep an eye open for ways you can slip aerobic activity and stretching into your daily routine. Park a little farther away for an extra five minutes of walking; use the stairs instead of the elevator; set an e-reminder to stand up and touch your toes once an hour.
- Get enough sleep. We know: this is easier said than done, especially when your loved one’s restlessness keeps you awake at night. But even if there’s no way to eliminate regular night wakings, you can reduce insomnia by implementing nightly winding-down rituals (turn off all screens, sip a cup of herbal tea, read your child a bedtime story), keeping your bedroom dark and cool, and practicing techniques to stay relaxed and eliminate needless worry. (Your doctor or therapist can help pinpoint techniques that work for you.)
- Don’t throw away your virus mask, even after getting your COVID and flu shots. Under the best of circumstances, a caregiver’s extra responsibilities mean that your immune system works hard to manage the extra stress. Give it a break by limiting its exposure to additional challenges.
- Nip burnout in the bud. Even when you do everything right, there will be periods when the stress is extra tough—and effects can accumulate before you realize it. If you’re becoming chronically restless; if you feel unreasonably cross at minor annoyances; if, despite going to bed at the same hour as always, you’re tiring early in the evening and struggling to really wake up in the morning—you need an extra break before things get worse. Find a substitute caregiver for the day or weekend, and spend some time at a spa, in a hotel, outdoors in nature, or enjoying a favorite leisure activity.
- Beware the temptation to run away from stress through mindless activities. A glass of wine is all right; “self-medicating” with multiple nightly drinks is not. An hour or two of television (with programming you genuinely enjoy) is fine; binge-watching on a regular basis is asking for trouble. The same goes for shopping sprees, casinos, and computer games: they are meant to be enjoyed in moderation and not intended for blunting stress to the point of possible addiction. If you really feel on the edge of total meltdown, consult your therapist for help planning more positive solutions.
- Count your blessings. And count your caregiver role as a blessing, an “I get to” rather than an “I have to.” Yes, a loved one’s disability-related needs can be stressful to deal with, but this is also someone you love and who brings unique joys to your life. Appreciate them for who they are, and tell them regularly how much you do appreciate them. You may sometimes feel that life has handed you a lemon, but the sweetest lemonade is squeezed from perseverance in the face of challenge!