With April officially designated as Stress Awareness Month, this is a great time to take a hard look at making your life a little easier.
According to statistics provided by the Family Caregiver Alliance, 65.7 million caregivers (29 percent of the adult population) provide care to someone who is disabled or has an illness. With nearly one in three Americans providing some kind of care, caregiving is at the forefront of many families, but it's also a major source of stress for them.
No matter how much you enjoy taking care of your family, the responsibilities that come with it can be daunting and draining. One of the top things caregivers need to remember is if you don't take care of yourself, no one else will. And if you start experiencing physical or emotional effects from being stretched too thin, you won't be as effective in your caregiving duties as you want.
But families don't raise themselves and aging relatives need your help. There's still a job to hold down and dinner to cook. How can you strike a balance?
1. Get Help
Caregiving is not meant to be a solo job. If you try to do it all on your own, you'll risk some of the most common and debilitating hazards of caregiving – depression, anxiety, exhaustion, loneliness, isolation, and even resentment for all you have to do. If you can afford hired help, do that. If you can't, there are many groups and people who can help you out. Look to your church, community groups, or your local Council on Aging for resources.
2. Find Out About Respite Care
If you find yourself taking care of your mom 24/7 while she recovers from an illness or major surgery, you'll quickly find out that being “on” all the time is not good for you. Respite care, when someone else takes over your caregiving duties so you can have time to attend to your own personal needs – from catching up with a friend to that doctor's appointment you keep putting off – is vital to the caregiver's well-being. If you think respite care is a luxury, you need to rethink respite care. Having some time off is not something you should ever feel guilty about and finding a capable person to take over for a little while will help you feel more energized and less drained.
3. Be as Organized as Possible
One reason so many caregivers are reluctant to step back, even when they know they need it, is because they know all the details of the care being given. Trying to explain all the medications, personality quirks, and household duties to someone else is time consuming, so you figure you might as well just do it yourself. But being organized, by entering all those details into a simple notebook, for instance, makes it easier to step back if you need to, but will also make it possible for you to step back if you have to. If you fall and break your ankle and no one else knows the caregiving routine or the next doctor's appointment, the transition will be rocky for both you and your loved one.
4. Be Nice to Yourself
No, this isn't about going out for a day at the spa. If you can do that, you should, but many caregivers just want to sit down for two minutes. Being nice to yourself means just that – treat yourself (with your flaws, disappointments, and joys alike) as you would treat a friend. Pat yourself on the back when you get through the day and things go great. But don't dwell on the days when everything goes wrong. You're only one person, and you're doing the best you can. Find the good where you can. Did you forget to thaw the chicken for dinner? Your family will be fine with a frozen pizza for one night. Did your dad miss his trip to the senior center because work called unexpectedly on your day off? It's okay. He might be disappointed, but he will get to the next one. Honor your efforts and be gentle when things go wrong.
Finding a balance is a struggle for all caregivers. But if you find the help you need, accept that you can't do it all, and treat yourself gently, your caregiving journey will be much smoother.