Being a caregiver for an aging or disabled loved one takes an incredible amount of strength. It takes strength to physically support them, to offer encouragement and positive perspective, to always be thinking ahead to their needs and strategizing better ways to live and thrive. But where does all that strength come from?
Some of it comes from our own unconditional dedication to serving and improving the quality of life for these individuals. But our energy for physical tasks, positivity, and emotional resilience is not a bottomless well. If we don’t commit to caring for the caregiver and being realistic about our own needs, our well will run dry. With a shift in perspective and a healthy dose of self-care, we can revitalize ourselves and our caregiving at the same time.
Accepting and Caring for the Caregiver’s Needs
There’s nothing wrong with needing to take a break, needing to lean on someone else for a change, and needing to shift the focus from the other to the self. It’s easy to feel as if our identities are wrapped up in caregiving, but caregiving is what we do—it’s not who we are.
Take a moment to ask yourself, “Who am I if I’m not a caregiver?” To give the proper attention to this important question, write your answers down—even if you don’t feel that you can answer the question directly.
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Generally, our lives are made up of relationships, interests, responsibilities, and deeper purpose and passion. Ideally, these aspects give back to us as much as we give to them. But if you’ve lost touch with one or more of these aspects over time, or if the scales have tipped so that you’re giving more than you are being filled and energized, it’s time to stop and evaluate your situation.
There is no shame in taking care of yourself. In fact, it’s what is best for everyone. The first step to caring for the caregiver is acceptance. Open up to your needs because they are a reality, but also because you deserve compassion and care just like your aging loved one does. Once you develop that acceptance, transformation can happen toward overall wellness and better quality of life for you and the one in your care.
Transforming Caregiver Stress and Fatigue
If you’re exhausted and stressed out as a caregiver, there are ways to turn things around and start re-gaining and sustaining your strength. But if you keep going this way on limited reserves, you could be headed toward even greater physical, mental, and emotional strain. It’s time to turn your attention to those relationships, interests, activities, healthy lifestyle practices, and support networks that can help you find balance again and take care of you.
Review what you have written down in response to the question posed above. Can you determine some of the missing pieces of your life’s puzzle right now? Are there ways you used to see yourself that you can no longer see now? Are there things you used to love that are no longer part of your life? Here are some ideas for how to revive your well-being and get you back on track.
- Talk about your experiences. Similar to the practice of writing down your reflections here and gaining clarity, talking about your experiences and sharing your feelings with others can help to ground you in those experiences. If it feels as if your friends cannot relate to the stressors you experience as a caregiver, try connecting to caregiver support groups to give you a place to express yourself and reflect in understanding, compassionate company. You can find support groups online and groups in-person near you. You can also meet individually with a counselor, who can empower you to strengthen your self-understanding and personal development. Caregiver family therapy can also be a wonderful way of giving voice to your experiences and forging a healthier path for the future.
- Take time for yourself. Let’s repeat that the first important step toward self-care is accepting that it is a priority. Sometimes what we need is to be able to step away from the many responsibilities of caregiving so that we can bring our own needs into view. Developing a comprehensive respite care plan can help pave the way for much-needed breaks. Maybe you need the time to take care of errands and other personal or family responsibilities. Perhaps you need an opportunity to stop doing and remember how to just be. One unique way to tune back into who you are is with a guided yoga practice designed with caregivers in mind.
- Reconnect with friends and family. It is common for caregivers to lose touch with friends and other support networks when their responsibilities seem to draw all the focus. But just as our aging loved ones need socialization, so do caregivers. If you’ve fallen out of touch with some of your relationships in the midst of caregiver stress and burnout, now may be the perfect time to call someone up and reconnect. Consider personal socialization to be a regular weekly need so that loneliness and isolation do not become additional burdens on you.
- Ask for help. None of us have to do it alone. It can be hard to ask for help and share some of the caregiving weight with another, but it is a critical step for your well-being and for the overall health of the caregiving relationship. Assistance might come in the form of cooked meals, occasional respite care, a social day program for your loved one to enjoy, wide-ranging family support, or care management and other expert assistance at home.
Loving and Caring for Ourselves Actively
If you’re still not quite sure how to approach your self-care, take a caregiver stress test to gain some more compassionate awareness. We know that actions toward self-care are much easier said than done, but those empowering actions can start right now by understanding and accepting of your own priorities in life. Transforming your needs and your perspective will allow you to be your best self personally and professionally. Remember that you don’t have to be strong alone.
Institute on Aging is here to support caregivers in the San Francisco Bay Area and to help them avoid fatigue and burnout. To find out more, check out our blog and give us a call at 415-750-4111.