If you are a new caregiver you are learning quickly that sometimes (or perhaps quite often) you put yourself and your needs last. In a previous article about the sandwich generation we touched on how being a caregiver can take a toll on relationships and finances. Caregiving also significantly compromises physical and mental health. Studies show caregivers are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and substance abuse and higher levels of stress and frustration. The physical list of problems includes an increase risk for heart disease, diminished immune systems, high blood pressure, higher obesity rates and chronic pain.
Am I a caregiver?
First let’s define who exactly caregivers are. The Mayo Clinic provides a simple definition: “A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, whether that’s an ill spouse or partner, a disabled child, or an aging relative.” In this article the term caregiver denotes care that is provided by a family member or friend rather than a professional who is reimbursed for services. Caregiver tasks can range from helping with errands and household chores to providing medical and nursing services. It can be a full time job or just a few hours a week.
It’s important to define yourself as a caregiver so you become aware of information, services and resources that can help you in this role. It’s also helpful to know you are part of a large group of people that have the same issues, needs and concerns so you can seek out support.
How to take care of you
I’m sure you have heard it before, but you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself. Being a caregiver is a truly selfless service, sometimes requiring you to put your life on pause in order to provide care and emotional support to a loved one. We’ve put together some information for new caregivers on basic ways you can minimize the stress caregiving puts on your health.
Take care of your body – Caregivers are less likely than non-caregivers to practice preventative healthcare and self-care behavior. If you are not taking good care of yourself , it can be hurtful to not only you but those for whom you provide care. You might want to ask yourself, “What good am I to my loved one if I fall ill, get injured or suffer from fatigue”?
If you need help with taking care of yourself, here are some healthy behaviors to try adding to your schedule if possible:
- Get enough sleep – A solid night’s sleep better equips you to deal with stress, increases your energy and productivity and helps prevent exhaustion and illness. If necessary, talk to your health professional about ways to help you sleep through the night.
- Exercise – Besides being good for you physically, exercise provides a mental break and helps combat depression. Aim for 30 minutes three times a week. Walking is one of the best and easiest things you can do to get started.
- Get regular checkups – Don’t let the small things linger, get them checked out so they won’t develop into something more serious. It’s also important to get your immunizations and annual screenings. Also, let your doctor know you are a caregiver. If you have even slight feelings of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns, let your doctor know about these immediately and he or she will get you the help you need.
- Eat Well – A well-nourished body is much better equipped to keep up with the demands of caregiving. Healthy foods will help with your energy level and overall wellbeing. Fast meals may be a reality as your time is limited but be aware that there are other options besides fast food. The key is to plan ahead and always keep healthy snacks with you. Fitbie.com has come easy grab and go snack ideas. There are also many foods and nutrition plans that can help boost brainpower and energy.Forbes recently did an article listing the top 10 brainpower foods that include chickpeas, blueberries and walnuts. These also make great snacks on the go.
- Seek out support – Many caregivers end up withdrawing from family and friends and becoming isolated which can lead to depression. Having both formal and informal support is very important for your own health and well being. For example:
- Stay socially connected – Keeping up with friendships is important to your well being and has been proven to have a drastic impact on health. Studies show a strong social connection not only positively impacts mental health but leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Make time to nurture your friendships, whether it’s catching up in person or chatting regularly on the phone. Friends can offer a listening ear or just provide a much needed distraction.
- Ask for help – Try not to wait until you are completely overwhelmed to ask other family members and friends to help with the caregiving responsibilities. One suggestion is to make a list of what needs to be done and have others choose what they can help with. Even if it may not be needed now, it’s a good idea to start looking into senior centers, adult day cares and home health services. It’s helpful to know what options are out there and some places have long waiting lists.
- Join a support group – This is the best way to connect with other caregivers and it helps to know you are not alone. There are many other people out there that understand what you are going through, that can offer advice, provide comfort and answer your questions. If you are feeling reluctant to join a support group remember you don’t have to divulge your every thought and feeling, Just listening to others with similar experiences can be extremely helpful as well!
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