A parent, a grandparent, a child, a partner, a brother, a sister, a best friend - when you look at the people you love, you may feel grateful for what they bring to your life, the impact they’ve had on your happiness and everything they may have done for you. And, when health problems arise for those you care about, it can be hard not to want to drop everything to help them by providing the support they need while they battle whatever condition is afflicting them. Whether it’s you that takes on this caregiving role or another family member, it’s important to recognize the reality that caregiving can be both rewarding and stressful for anyone. Caring for the caregiver is critical to maintain optimal health and keep you feeling your best as you care for your loved one.
Who is a caregiver? A caregiver is anyone who provides care or support to another person in need, such as an aging relative, disabled child or an ill spouse or family member. About 1 in 3 adults in the United States provide care to others as informal caregivers. Caregivers are often driven by their deep-rooted compassion and desire to support those they care about. But all too often, caregivers neglect their own self-care, leaving them physically exhausted and, in many cases, emotionally drained from their role of caring for another.
As a caregiver you may feel grateful to be a part of helping make your loved one’s life a little easier; however, you may also feel inundated by the amount of work or time it takes to support your loved one. The emotional and physical stress brought on by caregiving is very common and very real. It is natural – so don’t hold it against yourself or others – to feel angry, frustrated, exhausted, sad or alone. Caregivers often sacrifice their personal wellness while devoting their attention towards the care of a loved one, which can cause potentially harmful changes to your health.
Because they are so dedicated and focused on the care of their loved one, caregivers may not even notice that their own health is beginning to suffer physically and emotionally. As a caregiver, you’re more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. You may not get enough sleep, physical activity, or a nutritious enough diet, all of which can increase your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. It is important – for you and the one you are caring for – to take care of yourself first. If you can maintain a sense of self and take the time to focus on your health, you’re more likely feel good about what you’re doing and provide high-quality care to the person who needs you.
Caregiver Stress Warning Signs
- Feeling tired often but not sleeping well
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Gaining or losing weight
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Experiencing frequent headaches or other physical pains or problems
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
If your caregiving duties are interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, you need to take a step back to manage your health and stress and evaluate the level of work you can take on. There are resources and tools available to help you take care of yourself while providing care to your loved one. Leveraging these resources helps ensure that you are not assuming all of the caregiving responsibilities alone.
Tips for Managing Caregiver Stress:
- Reach out to family, friends and professional caregiving services for help. If you have other family members that are able and willing to help, be transparent with them about what tasks they could take over in order to lessen the burden on you. Also, exploring short-term or long-term care services may be in the best interest of you and the one you’re caring for depending on the severity of the condition.
- Set personal health goals for yourself. If you’re an avid gym goer or love to cook fresh meals but your caregiver duties have interfered with your normal routine, set a goal to try to get back to those healthy habits once a week to start. Take a yoga class, go for a walk, the point it to do something healthy for yourself!
- Connect with others. Whether it’s in the form of a support group, meeting up with a friend or reaching out to your local church, connecting with others and sharing your struggles help can reduce anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Never underestimate the power of talking with others who understand and can support you.
- Get enough sleep! Sleep deprivation can lead to exhaustion, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease and many other health problems. If your caregiver role causes interrupted sleep, consider asking a family member, neighbor or member of your faith community to step in for a night to help you get enough time to rest and restore your energy.
- Relax and have “me time” when you can. Caregivers spend upwards of 20 hours per week taking care of their loved one. That’s 20 hours of time you could otherwise be spending involved in hobbies, relaxing with family, traveling or doing whatever you enjoy in your spare time. Try not to lose sight of those ways you like to relax and if it means spending a little less time with your care recipient to keep up with your happiness, that’s ok!
- Visit your doctor. If you have been overburdening yourself for a while and have noticed that your health has declined, please see your doctor. Talk to them about your workload and stress levels; your doctor will be able to help determine what exactly you may need to do or what medications you may need to take to keep your health in order while you are also caring for your loved one.
Not every aspect of caregiving is burdensome, you and your care recipient may experience a unique bond while spending this additional time together. These times can provide truly loving experiences. And by taking care of your own health, you’ll feel an increase in mental and physical strength needed to continue confidently with your responsibilities as a caregiver. Remember if you don’t care for yourself, you won’t be able to care for anyone else.
Additional support and resources for caregiver health can be found through the following organizations.
Family Caregiver Alliance
US Dept of Health and Human Services - Caregiver Resources
Texas Health and Human Services
Area Agencies on Aging (AAA)