Why Self-Care is Essential for Caregivers
In my role as Patient Navigator at the UWC, I work closely with many caregivers. I personally identify as a caregiver, since I am the mother of four. I also see my own mother struggling to care for my elderly grandmother while she continues to work full time and is still vested in caring for her adult children and our growing families. What I see over and again is that caregivers break the golden rule—we forget to care for ourselves! You cannot pour from an empty cup, and yet so many caregivers try to do just that. This throws our life completely out of balance and sets the stage for chronic illness, anxiety/depression, resentment, irritability, weight gain, and fatigue amongst other ailments. How can we continue to be good caregivers when we are dealing with all of this? We can’t! It’s time to make some subtle yet significant changes to regain balance in your life.
As a caregiver, you need to create some space for your self-care. It’s time to release some things you currently feel responsible for. Create a list of your caregiving obligations, then create a list of obligations in your own life. Between the two lists, look to what you can either delegate to family/friends or hire out for someone else to handle.. When you are considering your lists, think about which of these tasks brings you joy and which feel like the biggest burden. That is a good gage on what things you should find an alternative plan for. Another thing to release? Guilt! If you feel at all guilty about delegating some of these duties, you need to remind yourself that you are doing this in large part so that you can be the very best caregiver, so that the person is getting the very best version of you. It is to everyone’s benefit that you make room to restore yourself.
Caregiving is stressful and emotionally draining at times. By giving yourself time to relax, you combat stress and create quiet time to fully feel and release any emotional upheavals. Not only will this make you more resilient in your day to day life, it will help restore your inner peace and have more patience. Try meditating in the mornings or evenings, take a yoga or tai chi class, take a bath and add Epsom salt and essential oils like lavender to amplify the relaxation. Practice an easy breathing exercise where you slowly breathe in through your nose for five counts, hold for five counts and then exhale for five counts. Repeat this mindful breathing for 10 minutes. As you do this, you can also visualize breathing light into your body, holding, and then exhaling any darkness from the body.
Be sure to get adequate sleep! Often, because of stress, worry, or trying to cram in too much in each day, caregivers often suffer insomnia or lack quality sleep. When you are sleep deprived, it is harder to focus and you become more forgetful. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep helps your brain process emotions, so when you lack REM, you are more likely to snap out in anger or tear up over little things. It also leads to weight gain, heart disease, and other physical ailments. Try to have a solid bedtime routine which can include journaling or writing to help unwind your mind and incorporate some of the relaxation techniques such as meditation, taking a bath, or mindful breathing. Try to be as habitual as possible to nurture a solid sleep cycle.
Exercise, even if just a brisk walk each day, will greatly impact your physical, mental, and emotional health. It is a great stress reliever, it increases your self-esteem, helps your body detox, and contributes to restful sleep. It is also a natural antidepressant, improves memory, and increases your energy level. So, hit the gym, ride your bike to the store, take a class, learn to dance, or take that brisk walk.
Do at least one thing each day that brings you joy and makes you smile. It can be as simple as a morning cup of coffee, listening to your favorite musician, watching a TV show or reading a beloved book. Be sure to physically smile while you do this because when you smile, it improves your mood by releasing endorphins, relieving stress, boosting your immune system, lowering blood pressure, maintaining a positive mind, and it’s contagious! You can pass on these amazing health benefits to the ones you care for and anyone that crosses your path.
As caregivers, our days can become one long list of to-do’s and often the first thing cut out is social engagements, time with friends or the like. This is detrimental to our wellbeing and can lead to social isolation. It is so important to keep time set aside to stay socially connected, especially to those that are supportive and understanding. It can be as small as a quick chat over the phone, an email, or something more significant like meeting for a coffee or having a lunch date. It is important to have people in your life that you can talk to about how you are feeling, what you are facing, and who will help you feel supported. These are likely the same people who will offer to help you, remind you to relax and get rest, take a walk with you, and make you smile. If you do not feel like you have people who support you in this way, please look into a local caregiver support group. Human connection is a vital part of our life experience.
Some of the top qualities to have as a caregiver are patience, compassion, dependability, strength, and positivity. By investing time into your self-care, you will be able to ramp up all of these qualities and provide outstanding care without burning out. As you honor time for yourself, you will see a dramatic shift from feelings of possible bitterness and resentment to enthusiastic, loving, compassionate care. Those you care for will be very grateful of this.