Take Care of Yourself as a Caregiver

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Family caregivers usually work without compensation. They often devote much of their day to helping older family members with their activities of daily living. The work of caregiving is stressful and often unappreciated.

The self-sacrifice associated with caregiving comes with a cost. Apart from giving up the opportunity to earn a fulltime income, family caregivers typically experience physical and psychological difficulties as a consequence of caregiving. Caregiving can cause stress that weakens the immune system and elevates blood pressure. Caregiving has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. 

Caregiving is also a physically demanding job. Muscle strains can lead to back aches and knee pain. Older caregivers may exacerbate arthritis and hip or joint injuries. Paid caregivers make workers’ compensation claims at a rate that is four times higher than workers in other occupations.

Family caregivers report “relatively high rates of exhaustion, being overwhelmed, and not having enough time for themselves.” The psychological impact of caregiving can include depression, anxiety, and an impaired quality of life.

Taking Care of Yourself

A caregiver who doesn’t care for herself will eventually be unable to care for the people she loves. Warning signs of caregiver stress — constant fatigue, frequent headaches, body pain, a feeling of social isolation — should alert family caregivers to the need to take care of themselves.

Family caregivers assure that the people for whom they care visit healthcare providers, but they often neglect their own symptoms. Regular medical checkups should be on every family caregiver’s agenda. Tell your doctor that you are a caregiver. Let the doctor know about the physical and emotional stress you endure. Doctors are better able to identify health conditions when they understand the circumstances that might contribute to health problems.

The National Institute on Aging recommends that family caregivers take other important steps to protect themselves from injury and emotional harm:

  • Exercise. The risk of being injured while lifting a family member can be mitigated by strengthening limbs and the back with regular exercise.
  • Get enough sleep. Try to develop a routine that allows you to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Adjust your diet. While caregivers are tempted to eat fast food so they can spend more time watching over their family members, highly processed foods contribute to obesity and poor health. A healthy diet will help caregivers maintain energy without sacrificing their own health to care for others.
  • Relax. Meditation, tai chi, yoga stretches, breathing exercises, restful walks, and other relaxation techniques can reduce stress, even if caregivers can only practice them for a few minutes at a time.

Be honest with yourself and with other family members. If the burden of caregiving is starting to feel overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Local caregiver support groups can improve a caregiver’s mental health by offering opportunities to stay socially connected.

Taking a Break

Sometimes caregivers just need a break. It’s important to be honest with other family members about the stress associated with caregiving. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Other family members may be willing to fill in for an hour or two so that a caregiver can take care of her own needs. If nobody is available to help, consider hiring a respite caregiver for a few hours a week. 

Unpaid respite care may be available in the community. A careful investigation of local resources may uncover help for family caregivers who need a break.

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