Whether you care for children, aging parents, relatives, or anyone else, the job of a caregiver is unique in that it has no discrete beginning or end each day. You are often the lifeline for those whom you care for, both metaphorically and literally. As a caregiver, you may juggle multiple roles, both within and outside of your family. While caring for others is highly demanding, it can be extremely rewarding and is crucially important. At the same time, this role can be so consuming that it leaves you with less time for your other personal and/or professional responsibilities. With diminished time and energy to take care of yourself, you may find yourself neglecting your own needs. In the face of this "caregiver stress," how can we take care of our loved ones and ourselves?
Recognize how important it is. The stress that stems from caregiving can take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. Physically, the stress can lead to exhaustion. When that happens, we can easily fail to find time to take care of our health, leading to a dangerous vicious cycle in which health problems can progress and become chronic. Psychologically, caregiver stress poses risks as well. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness can often result from the pressures, demands, and lifestyle changes that come about when caring for others. Many studies have shown that women who are caregivers are at particularly high risk for both physical and mental health problems, including coronary heart disease and depression. Many of these problems can be prevented, however, by making self-care a high priority and finding creative ways to achieve it.
Make time to take care of yourself. Although meeting your loved one's needs is a central part of your life, your needs are equally important. If you are not well, the quality of the care you provide to others in your life will surely decline. Rather than telling yourself "I don't have time," find a way to make the time, and set a short list of reasonable goals to promote your health and well-being. Find household or other duties that you can delegate to family members, friends, or hired help, or activities that you can temporarily suspend so that you can be make time to prioritize wellness, including the following:
- Visiting your doctor for regular check-ups.
- Exercise. If you make time to exercise consistently, it can help you cope with stress, increase your energy, and improve your mood. You can do this at home to a fitness video with your children present, or find a gym that offers childcare.
- Eating a balanced diet. This requires some advance planning, as eating on the go is often a source of a poor diet. One way to achieve this is to plan out your own meals in parallel with those of the ones you care for. For example, you can use the time when you're making their lunch to make yourself a healthy lunch as well.
- Taking breaks from caregiving. Remember your hobbies and take breaks, however brief, to maintain them, whether it's making a phone call to a friend, reading a book, playing a sport, or walking on the beach. You will be better able to care for others if you make time for small pleasures.
- Reaching out for the help that you need. If you do find that you are feeling depressed, exhausted, or anxious about the future of your loved one, don't be afraid to ask for and accept help that is offered to you. Help is available through both online and in-person support groups for caregivers as well as from counselors or therapists. In addition to professional help, don't be afraid to seek help from friends and family to help out with tasks you need to get done. You deserve to be cared for too!
Written by Suzette Glasner-Edwards, PhD
Reviewed by George T. Grossberg, MD
St. Louis University School of Medicine
Department of Psychiatry
Last updated August 2008