Even if you have help from your children, a visiting nurse or live-in care for your ailing spouse or adult child, being a caregiver takes a toll on your physical, emotional and spiritual health. When acute health issues occur, you must snap into action, running on adrenaline, perhaps terrified and panicked. And even when vitals are just fine, you're still marinating in stress and fear, waiting for "the other shoe to drop." Unless you take carefully planned steps for your own well-being, you'll be in a constant state of stress -- which isn't good for you.
According to Paula Spencer Scott, senior editor at the caregiver information website Caring.com, "the sick person may stabilize, but the caregiver's own health worsens. Or both decline and end up needing care. Sometimes the care recipient even outlives the caregiver."
According to "Stress in America," an annual report of the American Psychological Association, caregivers are more likely than the general public to have a chronic illness (82 percent versus 61 percent). Adding to your risk factors for illness and burnout is the fact that you may have pre-existing health problems of your own, such as high blood pressure or risk factors for diabetes, arthritis and other conditions. When the burdens and fears of caregiving fall upon you now, in mid-life, your risk factors escalate for heart disease, high blood pressure, new risks of diabetes, stroke, depression (40 to 70 percent of caretakers report experiencing depression), compromised immune system, weight gain and the resulting joint pain and blood pressure risks, sleep deprivation, back pain from lifting the patient, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol or smoking. Some caregivers also experience financial problems when they turn to addictive shopping to help make themselves feel better.
In short, you must make your own health and well-being a high priority. Here are some of the most effective, physician-recommended ways to give yourself some TLC, and it starts with stepping away from your caregiver role. That can be the hardest part. You may feel that stepping away, going out for a massage, or having fun means you're not doing your caretaking job well. But the better you care for yourself, and boost your own health, the better you can do your caretaking job. You will have more to offer.
--Ask for expert help. Your physician or hospital can connect you with a trained nurse or personal care assistant who comes into your home to take over caretaker duties while you tend to your exercise routine, run errands or visit with friends. Insurance companies often refer participating eldercare day programs where your spouse can go, and some specialize in dementia care. The center, or insurance company, may even provide free shuttle transportation for your spouse or patient. Caregivers often become close, trusted friends, and they're also watching out for you, as well. Hire from a trusted, recommended agency, never out of the phone book, since this person will be in your home unattended, and your loved one may need special care that a trained professional will provide.
--Make a plan with other family members. It's quite common for caregivers to experience resentments over other relatives not offering to help. But in some instances, they may think "you can handle it." Often, they're just waiting for you to ask. Do ask. For anything from help with errands to help with pets, removing those extra tasks from you.
--See what you can get delivered. Check out low-fee grocery delivery services, such as Peapod at Stop 'n Shop, or laundry delivery.
--Make time to exercise. Work your muscles and your heart with simple morning, afternoon or evening walks, use hand weights, play doctor-approved workout DVDs. If you have a gym membership, use it while your in-home care expert is there. Exercise boosts many healthy hormones that give you more energy, help protect you from depression and heart disease, and just make you feel better.
--Be social. Make lunch dates with friends, but use that time smartly. Don't complain about caregiving the whole time. Mix in uplifting topics, as well. Importantly, spend time with uplifting friends, not those who are miserable and expect you to tend to their emotional needs now. Make it a "no negativity lunch" for the best benefits.
--Ask your employer for assistance. Some companies offer leave, flex time, even free fitness club memberships to help you cope.
--Make and keep your own doctor's appointments. Self-care depends on good health monitoring, taking your medications, getting flu shots and experiencing the relief that all of your bloodwork is just fine.
--Sleep well. Edward Creagan, oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, says: "As simple as it sounds, a good night's sleep empowers and energizes us to tame the demons threatening our well-being. I'm not proposing that a good night's sleep is the panacea for life's miseries. But from my own experience ... I've learned that compromising on sleep can compromise our thought process and judgments."
--Get emotional support. See a therapist, or speak to a physician or hospital about online caregiver forums where you can vent when needed. An objective third party will serve you better than an equally stressed adult child or other relative in the mix with you.
--Eat well. Don't order fast foods because it's easier. Plan and make healthy meals and snacks, and drink healthy, non-sugary drinks to give you more nutrients and energy.
--Breathe. Learn to meditate and de-stress. Hospitals often offer free caregiver meditation classes and DVDs to help you relax.