Over 50 million Americans are family caregivers, meaning they provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member during any given year. The majority of caregivers are women, and most hold a full-time job in addition to their care-giving responsibilities.
What’s interesting is that many caregivers don’t see themselves in that role; rather, providing care for another is just something “they do.” But the bottom line is that if someone is living with you—whether it be your mom, dad, an in-law, sibling, spouse, or child—and that person requires you to provide some level of care to make his or her life easier or manageable, then you’re a caregiver, and you may need help in relieving stress.
Most caregivers report that there never seems to be enough time in the day to do it all. The physical and emotional strain of being a caregiver can cause stress, depression, anxiety, and even physical illness. In fact, research shows that the level of stress caregivers experience can take as much as 10 years off a caregiver’s life. Additionally, caregivers report having a chronic health condition at more than twice the rate of non-caregivers. That’s why it’s imperative for people who provide care for another to first take care of themselves.
Granted, the idea of “take care of yourself first” is often easier said than done, especially when someone you love is depending on you for help. But you can do simple things to ease your level of stress and focus on your own needs. The following suggestions will help.
1. Recognize the symptoms of stress.
Stress affects everyone differently. People can have physical, emotional, and/or relational symptoms. In order for you to take your own needs seriously and make changes to help yourself, you first have to be able to identify when the stress gets too much. Physical symptoms of stress include sleep disturbances, weight gain or loss; hair loss — even catching more colds. Stress can also show up in other ways, suck as lack of concentration, memory problems or increased arguments with those around you.
While these symptoms are common in caregivers, they are not healthy. If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, consider it a warning sign that you need to get help…sooner rather than later.
2. Learn to let go.
Many caregivers suffer from the “superhero” syndrome. They believe they can “do it all”—work full-time, take care of a loved one, fulfill personal and community obligations, and have a life of their own. Then, when something goes wrong or they fall short in some area, they feel guilty for not being able to do more. That’s when they try to overcompensate and make up for any perceived shortcoming, often cutting back on their own sleep time or personal enjoyment activities.
Realize that it’s unrealistic to think you can do everything yourself. Therefore, make a list of tasks others can do, such as cleaning the house, grocery shopping, preparing meals, and running errands. Talk with your family and friends and ask which task (or tasks) they could help you with. If you sit around and wait for people to offer assistance, help may never arrive simply because others don’t know what you need.
3. Focus on yourself.
Caregivers often become so stressed and depleted that they cannot maintain the stamina to continue caring for another. Therefore, you must take time daily to nurture yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. Schedule time for regular exercise—at least 30 minutes two to three times a week. Mild exercise is a great stress reliever and helps regulate sleep. Additionally, eat well-balanced meals every day, and take a daily multivitamin. Strive for a minimum of seven to eight hours of sleep a night and nap when possible. Get regular medical checkups and treatments of aches and pains before they turn into something more serious.
Like exercise, laughter releases chemicals in your body that help relieve stress. You can also use relaxation or stress management techniques, such as meditation, visualization, biofeedback, and yoga. And remember to stay actively involved with friends and hobbies.
4. Seek support.
Get help from community groups, such as respite care services or faith-based organizations. Respite services can include volunteer services, adult daycare, a short-term stay in a nursing home or assisted living facility for your loved on, a home health aide, a private-duty nurse, or adult foster care. Friends, family, and faith-based organizations can also provide respite care by staying with your loved one while you take a short break, go shopping, see a movie, go on vacation, or simply take a nap. Schedule some form of respite care service on a regular basis so you don’t get burned out.
Additionally, join a caregivers’ support group. Talking with others who understand what you are going through will help you feel less isolated. This will also provide a network where you can share ideas and information about community resources and equipment. Think you can’t find a support group in your area? Most cities have programs to offer assistance to the caregiver. The National Family Caregiver’s Association (nfcacares.org) is an excellent start in accessing this information. Also check your local newspaper for a listing of area support groups.
For more information on family caregiving, visit RedCross.org.