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How to care for yourself while taking care of others

Caregivers must take practice self-care

Caregivers, this is for you.

Even before the pandemic, more than 16% of the US population was providing unpaid care to an adult 18 years or older, including family members with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Women make up about 75% of those caregivers, and they put in the work while juggling jobs, children, and ongoing domestic-task overload. 

With nearly 23 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, caregivers are under additional pressure to care for and protect their loved ones. If you’re a caregiver, the stress may seem relentless, and you may be:

  • having trouble sleeping
  • under/over-eating
  • self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
  • canceling (or not even booking) your own doctors’ appointments

That’s because when you’re a caregiver, caring for yourself tends to happen only after everyone else’s needs have been met. What happens when you burn out? 

Self-care and being mindful: an important combination
A key part of self-care is learning to monitor your situation and how you’re feeling so you can make clear decisions to protect and support yourself. This is mindfulness: the practice of studying and analyzing an event as you experience it, instead of simply reacting to it. 

Pat Sharpnack, Dean of The Breen School of Nursing and Helping Professions at Ursuline College, mentions an example most people can relate to: how successful weight-loss programs help you become mindful of what and why you are eating, and make you plan ahead.

“There are a huge variety of programs that use these same principles of mindfulness,” she says. “Reiki, yoga, dietary changes—they’re all about making you more aware.”

If you’re always reacting to something in the moment—eating whatever is at hand, panicking to get everyone else taken care of—you’re missing the potential of mindfulness as a healthier way of dealing with things. Plus, figuring this out for yourself means you can bring that same knowledge to the people in your care, helping them reduce their own stress. 

We spoke with Pat about caregiver stress, and she gave us a number of self-care ideas that let you keep helping the people who need you—while taking care of yourself, too. 

1. Practice self-compassion: no one is perfect and that’s okay

When you’re overloaded and overwhelmed, even starting a self-help routine can feel onerous. Start small and don’t expect perfection: try one thing from the ideas below and see what happens. But don’t let that starting point be a source of stress. 

“Don’t forget to direct compassion at yourself as well,” says Pat. “When you are really giving of yourself, it’s easy to burn out. You have so little time and you struggle to prioritize.”

2. Stick to your routines as much as you can 

“Sleeping, eating, exercising, and family rituals are important to maintaining a sense of calm and predictability,” says Pat. “So much is unpredictable right now that routines can help you see where you can accommodate change. Without routines, change just means more chaos.” 

3. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help anyone else 

“I was a caregiver for my mother when I was growing up,” she says. “It’s exhausting because you want to be a good daughter, but you need to be sure you’ve got oxygen first.” 

Her comment refers to the analogy people often use for self-care. You know, the one where the flight attendant tells you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? It’s a basic truth: you can’t help anyone else if you pass out. As a caregiver, the same thing applies, you need to protect your own health first. For example, if you need to see a doctor, make the appointment and keep it, even if it means asking someone else to stay with the person you’re caring for. 

4. Practice good sleep-prep habits to get the rest you need

Stress can make it hard to sleep, and not being rested makes decision-making harder, which can lead to more stress, it’s a vicious cycle. The good news is you can break out of it with a little good “sleep hygiene”. Here’s what American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends, and get at least seven hours of sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the late afternoon and evening and don’t eat right before bed. 
  • Turn off your TV and devices at least 30 minutes before bed.

Read more: 12 simple steps to improve your sleep (Harvard Medical School)

5. Slow down and set priorities for what you can accomplish

What you can do in a day now is likely different from what you could accomplish in 2019 when you and the people you care for weren’t under the pressures of a global pandemic. 

Don’t expect to be as productive now as you were then, and don’t expect the people around you to be as productive either. Instead, set priorities and seriously consider what can be pushed to another day or even abandoned. 

  • At work, try to choose one achievable thing that will give you some satisfaction. 
  • At home, think about shortcuts. Can you have groceries or meal-prep kits delivered? Can a younger member of your household learn how to do dishes? 
  • In your caregiving life, consider ways to reduce the load. Can you delegate some of the care to someone else?

Read more: Time management strategies for caregivers (agingcare.com) 

6. Build a team, collaborate and delegate 

People like to feel needed, and one of the difficulties of the current pandemic is the sense of helpless waiting. This is a chance to give others something useful to do and make them feel valued while taking some of the pressure off yourself, caregivers.

“Don’t be shy about tapping into your support system and asking for help,” says Pat. “Ask your siblings, neighbors, people from church and the communities that the person you’re caring for belongs to.”

7. Build a support system and personal relationships for yourself, even if they’re virtual

“Try to reduce those ‘overload’ feelings by building relationships with people outside your caregiving circle,” says Pat.

With pandemic restrictions, you might need to rely on phone/video calls, which aren’t as satisfying as in-person interactions. The upside, though, is that you can connect with a wider range of people across greater distances. Email, text, and online forums are helpful, too, but the warmth of a live conversation can’t be beat.

Whether you’re talking to a friend or a therapist, connecting with someone outside your caregiving situation can reduce some pressure (hence the term “venting”). It’s a chance to “think out loud” about the situation, which can lead you to solutions. You may come up with them on your own or the person you’re talking to might suggest them, but either way, it’s a good thing. 

8. Get some fresh air and exercise every day

“You don’t have to push yourself too hard, but exercise is key,” says Pat. “It’s essential right now to get outdoors and get some fresh air.” 

Try a brisk walk and do some relaxed stretching at home. If there’s a local yoga or Pilates studio you’ve heard good things about, chances are they have online programming, and may have a trial or low-cost package of guided workouts. Of course, there are thousands of free stretching, yoga and other videos online. A quick Google search should net you plenty of useful options. 

A good way to become more mindful about exercise is to track your activity. Use the fitness app on your phone, or try one of these apps:

9. Try meditating

“With a limited amount of time for each of their roles, caregivers become mentally exhausted,” says Pat. “Meditation helps you learn how to put your daily stresses into ‘pockets’ so you can be mindful about these experiences and create balance for yourself.”

There are a lot of good apps out there: some have paid and unpaid levels of content, and you can often download a free trial to see if they work for you. Some popular apps include:

Above all, be kind to yourself

Right now, accomplishing the things we did before 2020 is that much harder for all of us, and being caregivers adds another layer of complexity. Whatever it takes, learning to be mindful of your own needs will help you maintain your own mental and physical health. Not only will you feel better, you’ll be a better caregiver, too. 

Are you a caregiver who needs a little extra support? 

Want to see how a few small tweaks to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual performance can boost your personal energy? Access the replay of our Energize & Shine webinar from February 16. The recording can be accessed via this link and can be watched at your convenience. 

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