Imagine you’re on an airplane that suddenly loses air pressure. The oxygen masks descend, and everyone scrambles to put them on. You’re traveling with a loved one who needs help. What do you do? The airline safety instructions are very clear: first put on your own mask, and then help others. You can only care for others effectively if you take care of yourself first.
This is true not only on airplanes, but in all areas of life. If you’re a caregiver to an ill parent or spouse, you need to make sure to fill your own needs in order to be a better, more effective caregiver. Many caregivers feel selfish making time for themselves when their loved one needs round-the-clock care. What they don’t realize is that they’ll crash and burn out if they don’t charge their own batteries frequently.
There’s a lot of guilt, resentment, fear, and frustration inherent in caring for your sick loved one. Don’t let those feelings get in the way of self-care. The caregiver needs just as much care as the care receiver—if not more. There are many people who can take over your loved one’s care if necessary… but you are the only one who can care for yourself.
Caregiver Stress is a Health Risk
The mental or emotional strain of constantly caring for a sick or disabled person can cause many health problems. Caregivers—regardless of age, race, or sex—report poor sleeping and eating habits, neglecting their own health, and failure to exercise. They often postpone their own medical appointments, or fail to make them in the first place.
Studies show that 46-59% of caregivers are clinically depressed. In addition, caregivers are more likely to be overweight or have a chronic illness. Another sobering study found that care-giving spouses aged 66 and up who experience mental or emotional stress have a 63% higher risk of dying, compared to non-caregivers their age.
How to Reduce Caregiver Stress
Here are some ways to reduce the physical, mental, and emotional burden you carry as a caregiver:
- Ask for and accept help. You don’t have to do it all alone. Prepare a list of all the different ways others can help you, and have it ready when friends or family offer their time. Let them choose what they would like to do. Options can include taking the sick person on a walk twice a week, or cooking your dinner once in a while. They can pick up your groceries when you can’t get to it, or stay with your parent while you go to your own doctor or take care of some other important errand.
- Connect with others in your situation. Every community has resources for people caring for family members. You can start at your local hospital, church, or social services office. Some organizations may offer transportation, meal delivery, or housekeeping services you can take advantage of. Another way to connect with others is to join a support group. Such groups offer validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving and resource sharing. You may make deep, lasting friendships with the other members of the support group, because you all understand what caregiving is like.
- Be realistic. It’s easy—and normal—to get bogged down with guilt sometimes. You want to do everything for everyone, but most of the time that’s just not possible. Set realistic goals for your loved one’s care, so you don’t feel overwhelmed with everything you have to do. Being realistic means you may have to say “no” to non-pressing requests, such as hosting holiday meals or being involved with charity organizations. It also means accepting when you can’t do it alone and need to hire a home health aide or move your loved one to a nursing home.
- Consider taking time off from work. If you are a caregiver who also works full or part time, you likely feel overwhelmed from all your responsibilities. As an employee, you may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year, with no threat of losing your job. You may even be able to get some of your salary back under New Jersey’s family leave insurance. For more information, see nj.gov’s Family Leave Insurance page.
- Take care of your own health. Make sure to visit your doctor regularly, especially if you’re having trouble sleeping. Don’t miss your recommended screenings or vaccinations. Let your doctor know you’re a caregiver so he can support you and take your concerns seriously. You should also set health goals for yourself, such as getting a set amount of exercise every week, eating a healthy diet, and establishing a good sleep routine. Don’t forget to treat yourself every now and then too. Making time for hobbies, periodic massages, or social interaction can work wonders on your mental and emotional health. You may also want to see a therapist to help you deal with the unpleasant feelings that invariably surface as you care for your loved one.
Respite Care: The Caregiver’s Secret Weapon
When you need a break from caregiving to recharge your batteries, consider respite care. Respite care is medical care for ill or disabled patients to provide short-term relief for their caregivers. It can be provided at home or at a skilled nursing facility like Park Crescent Healthcare and Rehab Center. While Medicare only covers respite care as part of a hospice plan, Medicaid may cover at-home respite services.
To learn more about Park Crescent’s respite program, feel free to contact us at your convenience.