How To Work Self-Care Into Your Family Caregiving Plan – Guest post by author June Duncan

The following is written by June Duncan, author of The Complete Guide to Caregiving: A Daily Companion for New Senior Caregivers, coming in Winter 2018. Click the link for more information. 


How to Work Self-Care Into Your Family Caregiving Plan

When your life revolves around caring for another person, it’s hard to make time for yourself. But if you don’t, you could end up burning out, leaving you unable to continue caring for your loved one.

Caregiver burnout is a serious problem for people caring for elderly family members. It’s known to contribute to depression, concentration problems, and substance abuse, and even leads some caregivers to mistreat or neglect their family member in need. The cause? Chronic stress from neglecting your own needs as you care for another’s. For that reason and more, it’s important that family caregivers find ways to fit self-care into their schedule.

First, healthy meals should be part of any caregiver’s day. Preparing nutrient-dense meals is not only good for the senior in your care, it also ensures you get the nutrition you need to keep illness at bay. Develop a list of healthy meals you can prepare in 30 minutes or less to take the guesswork out of mealtime. When finding time to grocery shop for ingredients is a challenge, grocery delivery services or food subscription boxes can simplify the process.

Likewise, committing at least 30 minutes per day to moderate exercise like walking or gardening helps caregivers meet the activity levels recommended for physical health. If you exercise alongside your family member, it helps their health as well and provides an opportunity to bond — plus, finding time to exercise is easier when you can bring your charge along. For more vigorous exercise, consider signing up for a fitness class at a center that also offers classes for seniors so you both can benefit.

To round out the physical health side of things, ensure you get plenty of sleep each night. Not only does poor or insufficient sleep limit your ability to cope with stress and control your emotions, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute it could also contribute to depression, increase the risk of chronic health problems, and lead to dangerous mistakes like giving the wrong dose of a medication.

Of course, your needs go beyond the physical. It’s also important to take care of your mental health so you have the capacity to treat your family member with patience and kindness rather than reaching for alcohol or drugs to alleviate stressors. This may seem simple enough at the beginning, but stay true to yourself even when things get really tough.

Chronic stress, like the tension many family caregivers experience, can lead to serious mental health problems that include depression, anxiety, addiction, and even cognitive impairment later in life. And although many people don’t realize it, stress is also intimately connected to physical health: According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can cause muscle pain and digestive problems, suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure, and contribute to serious illnesses like heart disease and obesity. Since stress can affect every aspect of your health, it’s clear that keeping it under control needs to be a priority.

To manage stress while providing caregiving, identify stress relief techniques you can apply throughout the day, like flowing through a meditative yoga sequence, practicing 4-7-8 breathing, calling a supportive friend, taking a power nap, or visualizing a relaxing scene. Each of these stress-reduction strategies can be done in 10 minutes or less and requires nothing more than a quiet space, so you can employ them at a moment’s notice when you need relief.

It’s not unusual for family caregivers to feel guilty about taking time away from their charge, but self-care is an essential component of a sustainable caregiving plan. When you take care of your own physical and mental health first, you’re better equipped to handle the challenges of caregiving with dedication and grace.

Image via Unsplash

Permission to Rest More

I slept this week. Every chance I got, I curled up under my warm blankets in my comfortable, old fashioned iron bed and willed myself to dream. Dishes piled up, laundry didn’t get done, and writing ceased. Instead, I snored.

After weeks of illness, the holidays, my daughter out of school and interacting with lots of people, my cold turned into a sinus infection. My doctor prescribed antibiotics and I reluctantly filled the prescription. But rather than taking one when I got home, I set the bottle of pills on my bedside table and took a nap. When I woke up, I asked, “What if I gave myself an entire week to sleep as much as I want? Will I get better on my own?” Deciding to find out, I set the meds aside. For one full week, I would drink tea and sleep.

Instantly I felt guilty. Shouldn’t I just take the meds and get better? I had a thousand things to do and a book to write and Christmas decorations all over my house. If I took antibiotics I’d probably be better in two days instead of a week. Giving a week to rest is an indulgence I couldn’t afford.

Or could I? My daughter went back to school, and although it’s true I work hard as her caregiver, there were several hours each day I could spend in bed. Besides, my body ached with fatigue and my lungs burned from coughing. My head pounded. Whether I wanted to accept it or not, I was sick and needed rest. Why not rest fully?

Grabbing my iPad, I climbed back into bed and watched Poirot Murder Mysteries on Netflix.

A funny thing happened over five days. Not only did my cough slowly improve and the pressure in my head subside, but my stress diminished. My cuticles healed because I wasn’t biting them so much. My eyes weren’t so dry from staring at a computer screen all day. When the phone rang, I didn’t jump and when my daughter needed me I had more patience. Not only did my body need rest to recover from illness, my body seemed to need rest to recover from 2015.

My head feels better now, but I might have an infection. I’ll give it time. From what I’ve read, antibiotics only cure sinus infections about half the time, so resting may be just as effective. But rather than killing off all the bacteria in my body and starting over, I gave my body a chance to kill bad bugs on its own. We’ll see if I still need antibiotics.

Rest is a luxury we can all use. I know I’m lucky to have the time; not everyone can ignore their work for a week. Realizing this, I don’t take rest for granted. It is a gift my daughter has given me. It’s challenging caring for a person with disabilities, but there are hidden gems in the work.

Next week I’ll jump back into my regular schedule of teaching, writing, running my press and managing the chaos. I’ll battle Social Security to make sure my girl has everything she needs. But right now, I’m going back to bed with a good book. Ahhhhh, heaven.