How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re a Caregiver During This Crisis

Prioritizing sleep, mindfulness, and moments of joy can help more than ever.

Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock
Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock

There’s a tendency for people taking care of family members with a serious health condition to forget about their own needs, even in “normal” times. In our new normal, during lockdown, focusing on ourselves can seem impossible. As a caregiver myself  — my husband Stephen has a brainstem tumor — I can relate. As I’ve written previously, Stephen is making a very slow recovery, but he is in a wheelchair with slurred speech and other difficulties.

I’m working full-time, my grown daughters are home taking their college classes online, and our professional caregivers can’t come in. Stephen’s not going to his physical therapy and other appointments because of social distancing mandates, so, like many other families, we are doing our best to take on those roles ourselves. We love being with him, but there isn’t much time left over!

According to Dr. Shanthi Gowrinathan, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of psycho-oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, making time for yourself is imperative. “Many caregivers are also looking after their families and doing jobs. Caregiving at home is not a job in isolation or one that is paid, and you can experience burnout,” she says. “It’s really about remembering that as a caregiver, you have wants and needs as well.

Here are six tips for caregivers at home. 

Schedule quality time with the person you are taking care of 

Set aside a couple of times a week where you are just with the “patient” in a relaxed way doing something together, even if it’s simply having a conversation or listening to music, says Dr. Gowrinathan, “so you can have a meaningful and lovely interaction, without any ‘work’ involved. That’s when you stop being a caregiver and you go back to being a partner or family member.”  

Take short breaks  

“At this time, caregivers face tremendous pressure to protect their loved ones from the virus,” Dr Gowrinathan says. “You are all in the house altogether and that dynamic makes it more of a pressure cooker.” It is important to take regular short breaks, she says, like having a leisurely  cup of coffee or calling a friend for support. ”Find pockets of joy, walk outside for a few minutes, and you might just happen to notice that it is actually spring and there are flowers blooming and birds singing.” If there are others at home helping, make sure you all schedule breaks and support each other, she says. 

Exercise 

Movement, preferably outdoors, is vital to the well-being of caregivers. “Research has shown that exercising outside has a greater benefit than an indoor workout, it can help reduce anger and tension, and increase feelings of revitalization,” San Diego-based cognitive psychologist Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programming at Pacific Neuroscience Institute, tells Thrive.  But any exercise is beneficial, she adds, to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and inflammation. “Exercise improves mood and decreases anxiety,” says McEwen, who suggests at least 30 minutes a day. If you can’t leave the house, she recommends using a fitness App like Aaptiv or taking an online yoga class. “Depending on your loved one’s level of mobility, you might be able to do a class together,” says McEwen, “and that  can even strengthen your bond by releasing oxytocin,” known as the “love” hormone.

Take up a hobby

There’s been a return to crafts and hobbies that were popular with past generations, since we’ve all been stuck at home. Knitting or crocheting can provide a welcome and calming distraction, says Dr. Gowrinathan, and it’s something you could do while you are sitting with your family member. Writing, painting, or doing puzzles could also be welcome creative outlets.

Practice mindfulness

While it’s great for everyone, mindfulness is particularly valuable for caregivers, says Dr. Gowrinathan. It’s something you can even do with the person you are taking care of. “Sitting with yourself and listening to what is going on inside for you, going inwards, can be helpful for stress management,” she says. McEwen specifically recommends breathing exercises and meditation. “A meditation practice (even for a few minutes a day) will have a tremendous positive effect long-term. Try an app like Headspace or Insight Timer. Benefits of regular meditation include mental clarity and focus. “The more we can stay in the present — not bogged down in thoughts or reactivity — the more we are able to take life in our stride,” says McEwen.

Sleep

Getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep is essential. “Although it may be difficult, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first,” says Kristen Knutson, Ph.D., associate professor at the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University. “We know that poor sleep can have a negative impact on everything, including mood, memory, and alertness,” says Knutson. Therefore, it’s not selfish to prioritize a good night’s sleep, because you will be a better caregiver and both you and your loved ones will benefit.

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