Family caregivers often try to do everything themselves. But to be a good caregiver, you must first take good care of yourself.

By Jamie L. Friend

Maybe you take care of your spouse, who's in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Or you've been tending to the needs of your mother since she was diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps your child was born with a lifelong condition requiring specialized care.

Whatever the circumstances, family caregivers tend to have at least one thing in common: They forget to take care of themselves.

While caring for those you love is important, and can be meaningful, caregiving is stressful work. It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. If you don't take good care of yourself, you won't have the energy to care for others.

Extended periods of providing care and support for a loved one can affect you in many ways, including:

  • Sleeplessness. Stress, anxiety or medical needs from your loved one in the middle of the night can make it difficult to get a good night's rest.
  • Reduced ability to concentrate. With so many tasks and responsibilities to manage you may find it difficult to concentrate. Brain fog makes every task more difficult.
  • Mood swings. You may have minor changes in mood. You feel angry one minute and then sad and helpless moments later. Irritability also is common.
  • Depression. Many caregivers feel alone, isolated and overwhelmed.
  • Weakened immune system. Stressed caregivers are more likely to catch whatever cold or flu virus that's going around.

Not sure how to lighten your load? When people ask what they can do to help you, have a list ready. While many caregiving tasks might be things you want to do yourself, there are plenty of chores that other people could take over, such as:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Yardwork
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Taking the person to their next medical appointment

Sometimes it can be difficult to accept help. Try to remember that helping others makes people feel good. When you are willing to accept help from friends and family, you're actually giving them an opportunity to feel good about themselves.

Even just having someone sit with your family member while you take a break can give you some time to recharge. Many communities have elder care or respite services, which can give you some time for yourself.

Many caregivers provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you can find respite and attend yoga class three times a week, that can have a positive impact on your health and wellness.

For your physical health, follow these tips:

  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Go for a daily walk.
  • Take your medications as prescribed.
  • Keep preventive medical appointments.
  • See your doctor when you're sick.

For your emotional health, make a list of small, simple things that bring you joy and energy. Then try to do at least one of those things every day. Everyone's list will be different, but here are some examples to get you started:

  • Connect with friends.
  • Listen to soothing or energizing music.
  • Play with kids or pets.
  • Tend a garden.
  • Work on a hobby.
  • Relax with meditation.

If you think you have developed depression, talk to your doctor. Help is available.

Support groups, especially those led by medical professionals, can help you feel less alone as you work to manage your time, energy and patience. Other people in a support group know exactly what you're going through, so you may learn some new strategies to help with your caregiving responsibilities.

Nobody can do everything by themselves. Reach out to people and let them help you, so you can become an even better caregiver for your loved one.

July 08, 2017