Over 50 million Americans are family caregivers, meaning they provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member during any given year. The majority of caregivers are women, and most hold a full-time job in addition to their care-giving responsibilities. What’s interesting is that many caregivers don’t see themselves in that role; rather, providing care for another is just something “they do.” But the bottom line is that if someone is living with you—whether it be your mom, dad, an in-law, sibling, spouse or child—and that person requires you to provide some level of care to make his or her life easier or manageable, you’re a caregiver.
While caring for a loved one can be rewarding, it’s also stressful and time-consuming. Most caregivers report that there never seems to be enough time in the day to do it all. The physical and emotional strain of being a caregiver can cause stress, depression, anxiety and even physical illness. In fact, research shows that the level of stress caregivers experience can take as many as 10 years off a person’s life. Additionally, caregivers report having a chronic health condition at more than twice the rate of non-caregivers. That’s why it’s imperative for people who provide care for another to first take care of themselves.
Granted, the idea of “take care of yourself first” is often easier said than done, especially when someone you love is depending on you for help. But you can do simple things to ease your level of stress and focus on your own needs. The following suggestions will help.
- Recognize the symptoms of stress.
Stress affects everyone differently. People can have physical, emotional and/or relational symptoms. In order for you to take your own needs seriously and make changes to help yourself, you first have to be able to identify when the stress gets to be too much. Common symptoms of stress include:
- Physical symptoms: sleep disturbances; back, shoulder or neck pain; tension or migraine headaches; stomach and/or bowel ailments; weight gain or loss; hair loss; muscle tension; fatigue; high blood pressure; chest pain; sweaty palms or hands; skin problems such as hives, eczema, psoriasis and itching; contracting the flu, colds and infections.
- Emotional symptoms: nervousness, anxiety, depression, moodiness, memory problems, lack of concentration, feeling out of control, substance abuse, phobias, overreactions.
- Relational symptoms: increased arguments, isolation from social activities, conflicts with co-workers or employers, frequent job changes, road rage, domestic or workplace violence.
While these symptoms are common in caregivers, they are not healthy. If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, consider it a warning sign that you need to get help…sooner rather than later.
- Learn to let go.
Many caregivers suffer from the “superhero” syndrome. They believe they can “do it all”—work full-time, take care of a loved one, fulfill personal and community obligations and have lives of their own. Then, when something goes wrong or they fall short in some area, they feel guilty for not being able to do more. That’s when they try to overcompensate and make up for any perceived shortcoming, often cutting back on their own sleep time or personal enjoyment activities.
Realize that it’s unrealistic to think you can do everything yourself. Therefore, make a list of tasks others can do, such as cleaning the house, grocery shopping, preparing meals and running errands. Talk with your family and friends and ask which tasks they could help you with. If you sit around and wait for people to offer assistance, help may never arrive simply because others don’t know what you need. Take the first step by committing to let go of certain responsibilities and then asking others to pitch in.
- Focus on yourself.
Caregivers often become so stressed and depleted that they cannot maintain the stamina to continue caring for another. Therefore, you must take time daily to nurture yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.
- Physically: Schedule time for regular exercise—at least 30 minutes, two to three times a week. Mild exercise is a great stress reliever and helps regulate sleep. Additionally, eat well-balanced meals and take a daily multivitamin. Strive for a minimum of seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and nap when possible. Get regular medical checkups and treatments of aches and pains before they turn into more serious issues.
- Mentally: Find a reason to laugh often. Watch a funny movie, read a funny story, or see a comedy act. Like exercise, laughter releases chemicals in your body that help relieve stress. You can also use relaxation or stress management techniques, such as meditation, visualization, biofeedback and yoga. And remember to stay actively involved with friends and hobbies.
- Emotionally: Take at least 15 minutes per day to pray, meditate or read inspirational books. Express your feelings with other family members rather than keeping everything bottled up inside. If your feelings make you uncomfortable, talk with a professional, such as a health care provider, psychologist or clergy.
- Seek support.
Get help from community groups, such as respite care services or faith-based organizations. Respite services can include volunteer services, adult daycare, a short-term stay in a nursing home or assisted living facility for your loved one, a home health aide, a private-duty nurse, or adult foster care. Friends, family and faith-based organizations can also provide respite care by staying with your loved one while you take a short break, go shopping, see a movie, go on vacation or simply take a nap. Schedule some form of respite care service on a regular basis so you don’t get burned out.
Additionally, join a caregivers’ support group. Talking with others who understand what you are going through will help you feel less isolated. This will also provide a network with which you can share ideas and information about community resources and equipment. Think you can’t find a support group in your area? Most cities have programs to offer assistance to the caregiver. The National Family Caregiver’s Association (nfcacares.org) is an excellent start in accessing this information. Check your local newspaper for a listing of area support groups.
Care for Yourself to Care for Others
Caring for a loved one is certainly not easy, and in some cases, it’s a full-time job unto itself. In the coming years, the need for family caregivers will increase. Based on research conducted by The Center on an Aging Society at Georgetown University, the number of people over age 65 is expected to rise at a rate of 2.3 percent, while the number of family members available to care for them will only increase at a rate of 0.8 percent. It is clear that family members are going to be taking on more and more care-giving responsibilities in the future. The only way to keep up with the demands of being a caregiver is to take time for yourself. By following the suggestions offered in this article, you’ll have more energy and time, not only for your own needs, but also for the needs of those you love.
For more information on family caregiving, visit www.RedCross.org. To provide your employees with information on caring for their loved ones, you can order the American Red Cross “Family Caregiving” reference guide and DVD set by phone at (800) 667-2968, online at www.RedCrossStore.org or by contacting your local American Red Cross chapter.