I knew something had to change when I fell asleep at the wheel and nearly got into an accident. I’d just completed a long and stressful evening of parent-teacher meetings, and I was driving to check up on my aging father.
Since we couldn’t afford to get him a full-time caregiver, I’d sort of fell into the role after my mom passed about eight months earlier. Every morning before work I drove to his home to make him breakfast, and every evening I brought him dinner and helped him get ready for bed. My weekends were spent taking him on outings, cleaning his house, and preparing his food for the week. All of a sudden, I felt like I had two full-time jobs.
After about six months caring for my dad, working full-time, and functioning on less than five hours of sleep a night, I came down with a pretty serious case of pneumonia. I was bedridden for a week and exhausted for almost a month. At the time, I remember thinking that it was the worst thing that could have happened, but looking back now, I see that it was a blessing. My illness caused me to make some pretty significant changes in how I was dealing with things.
If my story sounds all too familiar to you, and you’re struggling to balance caregiving and working full-time, know that things can get better. I learned a lot from my experience trying to manage it all, and while I still work full-time and care for my father, I do things very differently now. If you are a caregiver and are working full time, here are my tips for managing it all while staying healthy and happy.
Tip #1: Be Honest with Your Employer About Caregiving and Working Full Time
One of the best decisions I made when I recovered from pneumonia was to sit down with my employer and talk about what was going on with me—something I hadn’t done before and something I would definitely recommend. I told her about the situation with my father and how difficult I was finding it to balance work and caregiving. I still very much wanted (and needed) to keep my teaching job, so together, we brainstormed ways that I could lighten my load at school and have more flexibility.
Having a flexible, understanding, and supportive workplace is key if you are working full time and caregiving. Without the support from my boss, I don’t know how I would have carried on managing everything. She graciously permitted me to be able to take time off for doctor’s appointments and answer calls from my father during work hours. These two changes have made all the difference for me, and I find myself a lot less stressed at work because my boss is aware of what I am going through.
If your workplace is not supportive or accommodating to your needs, it may be time to look for someplace that is or scale back your hours to part-time. Of course, it may also be possible to be paid to be a caregiver for your aging loved one. Veterans affairs and Medi-Cal offer programs that financially compensate family caregivers, making it possible for you to lighten your workload without losing income.
Tip #2: Practice Regular Self-Care
When I started caring for my father, I completely stopped caring for myself. This is one of the most common mistakes that caregivers make, especially if they are working full-time. I just couldn’t justify spending time on myself when my dad needed me so much. But now I realize I can’t be there for him in the best way possible if I am not healthy, happy, and rested myself.
While it is true that you likely don’t have much time (if any at all) to practice self-care, it’s crucial that you make the time to eat well, exercise, and relax. Otherwise, stress builds and weakens the immune system and you become increasingly prone to caregiver burnout.
To fuel your busy days, it’s important to eat three substantial meals a day, plus a few snacks in between for extra energy. Focus your diet on lean protein (like legumes, lentils, eggs, chicken, and fish), a colorful variety of vegetables, and whole grains (like brown rice and quinoa). These whole foods will give you a steady stream of energy, rather than the spikes and dips that one gets from consuming processed and refined foods.
Exercise is also key for stress relief, maintaining good health, steady energy. Yoga is great for caregivers, and I can personally attest to the benefits it provides. Even just finding 10 to 15 minutes a day to practice will make a huge difference in the way you feel, mentally and physically.
Tip # 3: Delegate and Ask for Support
Another big mistake we often make when trying to juggle working full time with caregiving is thinking that we have to do it all ourselves. Not only is it okay to ask your spouse, friends, or relatives to help out, it’s necessary for your well-being. Perhaps a friend can cover your caregiving duties one day a week, or your spouse can clean your aging loved one’s house while you take a break.
Of course, it’s also important that you ask for support for yourself and not just your aging loved one.
Here are a few things you can do to bring more support into your life:
- Ask neighbors or friends to cook a healthy for your family once a month or sign up for a healthy meal delivery service.
- Have your spouse or kids take care of the domestic duties for you (cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry).
- Find a caregiver support group in your area to provide emotional support.
- Have a friend or relative take the kids for a night to give you and your spouse some alone time.
Asking for help may not feel comfortable at first, but it will get easier with practice. Know that people genuinely want to help you, but they are often waiting to be told exactly how they can help to step up.
While being a caregiver and working full-time is never going to be easy, being honest with your employer, practicing regular self-care, and asking for support can help lighten your load and make managing it all quite possible.
Something that often comes to mind when I’ve had a particularly tough day and I am feeling tired or run down is this quote from Rhonda Byrne: “Unless you fill yourself up first, you have nothing to give to anybody.” You owe it to yourself, your employer, and to your aging loved one to look out for your own needs. Only then can you be the kind of person, caregiver, and employee that can truly give.
At Institute on Aging, we connect aging adults and their caregivers with the support and services they need to make living independently possible. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can help you better manage it all.