Many of us are or will become caregivers for senior loved ones in our lives. Caring for a senior loved one is a rewarding experience as well as an important service, but many caregivers are stressed and overwhelmed navigating care as well as their daily lives that may include work or raising a family of their own. One of the most important things a caregiver can do to manage stress and provide better care for their loved ones is to practice self care, which can be difficult to start if you haven’t been practicing it already. Keep reading to learn more about self care and how to get started with self care practices when you’re a caregiver.
What is Self Care?
Self care is something we do deliberately to take care of our physical, emotional, and mental health. What activities we choose to do as self care are dependent on what brings us joy, helps us unwind, or refuels us, so they will vary from person to person.
Self care isn’t a selfish act. It’s something everyone needs to manage stress, and pausing to take care of ourselves helps us process our situations instead of feeling overwhelmed. When we avoid taking time for ourselves to destress and unwind, we risk our own health, both physically and mentally. Caregivers are at a higher risk for chronic illness and depression, and also less likely to practice self care and preventative healthcare.
When you’re a caregiver for a senior loved one, you’ve probably pushed off your own needs for the care of your loved one, but consistently doing this can drain your health until you’re trying to pour from an empty cup. Self care is important for your health and the care you provide for your loved one.
1. Identify Resistance to Self Care
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. Whether we’ve struggled with taking time for ourselves our whole lives or we feel solely responsible for the care of our loved ones right now, we can convince ourselves we shouldn’t take time for self care.
Resolving these concerns is the first step to building a self care strategy. Understand why you struggle with getting away and start to take down those obstacles. You may be resistant to self care if you have thoughts like:
- “If I don’t care for my loved one, no one else will.”
- “I owe it to my loved to care for them because they took care of me when I was young.”
- “Taking time for myself is selfish to my loved one.”
- “If I ask for help, I’m not doing a good job to care for my loved one.”
Thoughts like these are what’s called negative self talk, and they can affect our stress and the decisions we make. Our minds have a tendency to believe what we tell them, so it’s important to recognize when we have these thoughts and work to replace them with positive ones. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “Taking time for myself is selfish to my loved one,” work to replace it with, “I provide better care for my loved one when I take time for myself.”
2. Start with Small Activities
When we feel overwhelmed or exhausted, it’s easy to see things as more complicated than we normally would and to overthink small tasks. Taking a few hours or a whole day for yourself can seem impossible, but starting with self care in smaller doses can still have a big impact on our health and lead to confidence in taking more time for self care down the road.
Some small actions you can take when it comes to self care as a caregiver are:
- Deep breathing exercises: Taking a few minutes in your day to stop and take a few deep breaths can help refocus your mind so you can organize scattered thoughts.
- Create a “no” list: A “no” list is a list of things you can say no to, either because they’re unpleasant and contribute to your stress or there is someone else who can take care of these things. Make a list of all the things you do or you think you’re expected to do and identify the things that you can’t do or can delegate to someone else, like a spouse, family member, or friend.
- Find self care activities for you and your loved one: If you struggle with finding time to exercise or spend time outside, find an activity you can do with your loved one that incorporates these needs. Doing light exercises or taking a walk around the neighborhood with your loved one is good for both your health and the health of your loved one.
3. Ask for Help with Caregiving
Everyone needs help sometimes, and it’s okay to ask for help. Asking a friend or family member to step in sometimes is good for you and your loved one. You could ask someone to visit with your loved one for a few hours while you take a break, which is important socialization for your loved one and something they can look forward to.
When you start to feel more confident with asking and getting help from others, you can consider longer periods of time away, either through a service like an adult day care or respite care at an assisted living community. Both of these options ensure the care of your loved one while you’re away and offer valuable social interaction and activity.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help for yourself, too. If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety or depression, there is support available for caregivers. Join a support group for caregivers; there are plenty of options for groups that meet in-person and online communities. There are plenty of Facebook groups dedicated to caregivers, such as the Dementia Caregivers Support Group or Caregivers Connect. You can also find local support groups and caregiver resources through the Caregiver Resource Network and Alzheimer’s Association.
4. Have a Plan in Advance for Emergencies
If you worry about what would happen if you became sick or injured, work out a plan with your loved one and family or friends in advance of these situations. Caring for your loved one while you’re sick or injured can prolong an illness or put you at risk for greater injury. Additionally, caring for your loved one while you’re sick puts them at risk of falling ill as well.
Talk with a friend, neighbor, or family member who can help take over caregiving activities before you are sick or injured so you can have peace of mind while you take time to recover instead of scrambling for a backup caregiving situation. If you know in advance you will need to be away for some time like a business trip or surgery, consider a respite care solution at an assisted living community that offers you peace of mind and a little vacation for your loved one, too.
5. Build Clear Communication Strategies
Asking for help is difficult, both for ourselves to say the words and for others to understand them. If we’re not communicating clearly, such as dropping hints instead of being direct in our needs, the person we’re talking with might miss or not understand what we’re saying.
Whether you’re talking to your physician, your loved one’s physician, or friends and family, be clear in what you need and why. For example, instead of saying to a family member, “It’d be nice if someone could help with some of the cleaning,” speak directly and say, “I am struggling to get all of the cleaning done at the house. Are you available to help this weekend?”
Working on communication helps you get the support you need so you can take time for yourself.
Self care is important to manage your health and wellbeing as a caregiver for a senior loved one. These strategies can help get you started on finding time and support for self care. When your needs are met, you can create the time to do things you enjoy while still accomplishing everything you need to for your loved one.