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How to take care of YOU when you’re the caregiver

By Michelle Rogers, CPT | April 27, 2018 | Health Conditions

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Although being a caregiver can feel isolating, you are not alone. According to the nonprofit Caregiver Action Network (CAN), more than 90 million Americans care for loved ones with chronic conditions, disabilities, disease, or old age.

The Impact on Caregiver Health 

CAN also report the following sobering research statistics about the impact on caregiver health

  • 23%of family caregivers caring for loved ones for five years or more report their health is fair or poor.
  • The stress of family caregiving for persons with dementia has been shown to impact a person’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness themselves.
  • 63% of caregivers report having poor eating habits than non-caregivers and 58% indicate worse exercise habits than before caregiving responsibilities.
  • 40% to 70%of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.

In addition to the myriad responsibilities faced as a caregiver, one of the biggest challenges of all may be how to take care of you. Taking the time to attend to your own health and wellbeing is crucial, however.

“It’s akin to putting the oxygen mask on yourself before someone else, it’s the same with eldercare,” says caregiver advocate Nancy Ruffner of Navigate NC. “We have to extend the life of the caregiver. It seems counterintuitive but it’s not.”

Ruffner points out that caregiving is an act of love. “And some of that love needs to be self-love,” she says. “It’s hard for caretakers, we’re the worst offenders. But it’s absolutely essential.”

By taking care of your own health, you can be strong enough to take care of your loved one. You’ll also be better able to deal with stress, and avoid burnout and future health problems.

When you’re caring for someone else, it seems there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. And exercise and taking time to eat healthfully might be last on your list. Yet out of all the activities you could do, these may be the most beneficial because it can keep you from getting sick, help you sleep better, and provide you with increased energy.

Here are some tips to help you fit healthy habits into your day: 

Carve out time for exercise

 Fit it in when you can. When your loved one naps, you could do an exercise video, ride a stationery bike, or take a refreshing walk around the block.  While you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day, you can break this up into three 10-minute segments throughout your day if that works better for you.

Focus on doable, small changes

If 30 minutes isn’t possible or you aren’t accustomed to exercising, doing just 10 or 15 minutes a day is better than nothing. You can always work your way up to more.

Keep it simple

Exercise can be as simple as a brisk walk around your neighborhood. Many studies have shown that regular walking is one of the best things you can do to improve physical and mental health. Plus, it’s free and doesn’t require any special equipment. 

Ask for Help 

Enlist help so that you can get out of the house for a class, lunch with a friend, shopping, a massage, or other self-care. Accept offers of help from relatives, friends or your church community. In addition, a caregiver support group can provide emotional support, encouragement and a network of helpful resources. And don’t hesitate to seek professional help when you need it.

Take time out

Caregiving is hard work. Take breaks often, and be sure you’re getting enough sleep.

Enroll in a group exercise class

This provides not only physical exercise but a valuable emotional benefit as well. For many who attend adult exercise classes, it’s a much-needed social outlet with smiles, laughter and new friends.

Choose a format that appeals to you. There’s something out there for everyone. An adult aerobics class provides a fun, energetic hour of music and cardio dancing. A tai chi or yoga class offers a calming, peaceful experience. All are wonderful stress relievers.

If getting out to a class or gym isn’t possible, another option is to seek a mobile personal trainer to come to your home.

Find ways to exercise with your loved one

Taking a walk in the park, gardening or another activity you enjoy together is a great way to exercise with your loved one. At home, put on some music and dance, or do a chair yoga video together. 

Aim for better nutrition

If you want your car to run well, use the right fuel. The same principle applies to your body. Good nutrition can make a dramatic difference in your energy level and well-being.

But it’s not necessary to go on a drastic diet. Instead, focus on small tweaks so that you don’t feel deprived. Prepare healthier versions of your favorite foods. For example, make oven-fried chicken instead of deep-fried. Aim to eat healthfully 80% of the time rather than trying to be perfect.

When you’re busy but want to eat healthy, a slow cooker can be a lifesaver. Putting together an easy stew in the Crock Pot, or making a big pot of vegetable soup will provide your family with several days of nutritious meals.

Forgo the guilt

Remember, it’s not selfish to take care of yourself. The stronger, healthier and happier you are the better you’re able to care for those depending on you. Take the time away that you need. The best gift you can give your loved one is your own good health!