First, Care for Yourself
On an airplane, an oxygen mask descends in front of you. What do you do? As we all know, the first rule is to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist anyone else. Only when we first help ourselves can we effectively help others. Caring for yourself is one of the most important—and one of the most often forgotten—things you can do as a caregiver. When your needs are taken care of, the person you care for will benefit, too.
We hear this often:, “My husband is the person with Alzheimer’s, but now I’m the one in the hospital!” Such a situation is all too common. Researchers know a lot about the effects of caregiving on health and well being. For example, if you are a caregiving spouse between the ages of 66 and 96 and are experiencing mental or emotional strain, you have a risk of dying that is 63 percent higher than that of people your age who are not caregivers.1 The combination of loss, prolonged stress, the physical demands of caregiving, and the biological vulnerabilities that come with age place you at risk for significant health problems as well as an earlier death.
Older caregivers are not the only ones who put their health and well being at risk. If you are a baby boomer who has assumed a caregiver role for your parents while simultaneously juggling work and raising adolescent children, you face an increased risk for depression, chronic illness and a possible decline in quality of life.
But despite these risks, family caregivers of any age are less likely than noncaregivers to practice preventive healthcare and self-care behavior. Regardless of age, sex, and race and ethnicity, caregivers report problems attending to their own health and well-being while managing caregiving responsibilities. They report:
- sleep deprivation
- poor eating habits
- failure to exercise
- failure to stay in bed when ill
- postponement of or failure to make medical appointments for themselves
Family caregivers are also at increased risk for depression and excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Caregiving can be an emotional roller coaster. On the one hand, caring for your family member demonstrates love and commitment and can be a very rewarding personal experience. On the other hand, exhaustion, worry, inadequate resources and continuous care demands are enormously stressful. Caregivers are more likely to have a chronic illness than are non-caregivers namely high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a tendency to be overweight. Studies show that an estimated 46 percent to 59 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed.
Taking Responsibility for Your Own Care
You cannot stop the impact of a chronic or progressive illness or a debilitating injury on someone for whom you care. But there is a great deal that you can do to take responsibility for your personal well being and to get your own needs met.
Identifying Personal Barriers
Many times, attitudes and beliefs form personal barriers that stand in the way of caring for yourself. Not taking care of yourself may be a lifelong pattern, with taking care of others an easier option. However, as a family caregiver you must ask yourself, “What good will I be to the person I care for if I become ill? If I die? Breaking old patterns and overcoming obstacles is not an easy proposition, but it can be done—regardless of your age or situation. The first task in removing personal barriers to self-care is to identify what is in your way. For example:
- Do you think you are being selfish if you put your needs first?
- Is it frightening to think of your own needs? What is the fear about?
- Do you have trouble asking for what you need? Do you feel inadequate if you ask for help?
- Do you feel you have to prove that you are worthy of the care recipient’s affection? Do you do too much as a result?
Sometimes caregivers have misconceptions that increase their stress and get in the way of good self-care. Here are some of the most commonly expressed:
- I am responsible for my parent’s health.
- If I don’t do it, no one will.
- If I do it right, I will get the love, attention, and respect I deserve.
- Our family always takes care of their own
- I promised my father I would always take care of my mother
“I never do anything right,” or “There’s no way I could find the time to exercise” are examples of negative self-talk, another possible barrier that can cause unnecessary anxiety. Instead, try positive statements: “I’m good at giving John a bath.” “I can exercise for 15 minutes a day.” Remember, your mind believes what you tell it.
Because we base our behavior on our thoughts and beliefs, attitudes and misconceptions like those noted above can cause caregivers to continually attempt to do what cannot be done, to control what cannot be controlled. The result is feelings of continued failure and frustration and, often, an inclination to ignore your own needs. Ask yourself what might be getting in your way and keeping you from taking care of yourself.
Once you’ve started to identify any personal barriers to good self-care, you can begin to change your behavior, moving forward one small step at a time. Following are some effective tools for self-care that can start you on your way.
Tool #1: Reducing Personal Stress
How we perceive and respond to an event is a significant factor in how we adjust and cope with it. The stress you feel is not only the result of your caregiving situation but also the result of your perception of it—whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty. It is important to remember that you are not alone in your experiences.
Your level of stress is influenced by many factors, including the following:
- Whether your caregiving is voluntary. If you feel you had no choice in taking on the responsibilities, the chances are greater that you will experience strain, distress, and resentment.
- Your relationship with the care recipient. Sometimes people care for another with the hope of healing a relationship. If healing does not occur, you may feel regret and discouragement.
- Your coping abilities. How you coped with stress in the past predicts how you will cope now. Identify your current coping strengths so that you can build on them.
- Your caregiving situation. Some caregiving situations are more stressful than others. For example, caring for a person with dementia is often more stressful than caring for someone with a physical limitation.
- Whether or not support is available.