Caregivers are great at caring for others…but who cares for the caregiver?
Anyone who has ever been in an airplane has heard the instructions, “In the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others”. The reasoning behind that is simple: if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help those that depend on you. This one phrase that is so familiar to us is the perfect metaphor for self-care, especially for those who are caregivers. If we are running on empty, we aren’t available to those who depend on us.
There is no doubt that being a caregiver is stressful and exhausting at times. Whether we are caring for aging parents, children with disabilities, or a family member with a terminal or chronic illness, we know all too well what it’s like to be “on-call” 24 hours a day. As the parent of children with special needs, it feels like there are times where life is always in crisis mode. Those symbolic oxygen masks are constantly dangling in front of us.
Acting as a caregiver can also be isolating, especially if your loved one requires 24-hour care. I remember one particular time years ago where we were in constant crisis mode. Leaving the house too exhausting and frustrating and required significant preparations. There were weeks where my only adult contact was with the telemarketers who called.
Insolation coupled with high levels of stress and anxiety can lead not only to physical health problems, such as strokes, obesity, and cancer, but its also one of the most common causes for addiction and substacen abuse.
Therefore, it is essential that caregivers make it a priority to first care for themselves. The following four ideas can help caregivers “put on their own mask first” and relax, recharge, and care for the caregiver.
Eating and sleeping well are two areas that we tend to overlook during stressful times. However, proper nutrition and sleep are essential parts of self-care. While you may not always have time to cook well-balanced meals, keeping healthy snacks on-hand, such as fruit, nuts, and pre-cut vegetables, can give you something healthy to reach for when you realize you haven’t eaten all day. If you have access to respite care, try calling a few friends over to help prepare meals to keep in your freezer. This is a great way to not only make sure you have convenient and healthy meals available, but also to have a few hours of authentic conversations with friends.
Mindfulness and mind-body techniques have been proven to improve the quality of life and well-being of caregivers. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take ten minutes a day to practice deep breathing or meditation. It can also be done throughout the day – while driving, in waiting rooms, or while your loved one is working with a therapist. There are several apps available that can assist with guided meditations, breathing practices, and mindfulness. For those that find movement helpful, yoga and tai chi are both ways to practice relaxation and deep breathing.
Having conversations with other adults is important for maintaining mental health. While social media can help us stay connected to friends and family, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. If going out with friends isn’t possible, perhaps ask your loved one’s medical care team about local caregiver support groups. Being around others in a similar situation can help you realize that you’re not alone.
As a caregiver, your daily planner is likely filled with appointments for your loved one. I know mine certainly is. It’s easy to overlook your own needs when you have back-to-back appointments. These appointments are necessary for maintaining your loved one’s mental and physical health. However, setting consistent appointments for self-care is just as necessary to maintain your own health. It can be as simple as 15 minutes a day to drink coffee and catch up with the news. Write your appointment for self-care in your planner and treat it with just as much urgency as you would any other appointment.
Practicing regular self-care is essential to prevent caregiver burn-out, as well as significant mental and physical health issues. While it is not always easy to find time for ourselves, spending at least 10 minutes a day caring for ourselves can be one of the most important things we do as a caregiver. After all, it’s not safe to constantly “assist others with their oxygen masks” without first putting on our own.