As a caregiver, you must always remember that taking care of yourself is crucial to you and to your loved one. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day and as a caregiver, you spend most, if not all, of the hours caring for your loved one. That is why caring for yourself is so important. You need time to yourself, whether it be taking a five-minute nap or going shopping by yourself.
You find yourself thinking, “But what can I do for myself if I don’t have much time?” Sometimes you figure what would a five-minute break actually do for me? Five minutes does not seem like a long time, but five minutes of quiet can be very relaxing. It may even seem longer. Below are a few ideas that can be done in a short period of time.
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A Caregiving Lesson
Have you ever flown on a commercial aircraft? Remember what the flight attendant said at the beginning? Along with seat belt and escape hatch demonstrations, there was instruction regarding the oxygen mask that drops down when there’s a rapid change in cabin pressure. The lesson went something like this: “Put your mask on first and then attend to children and others seated near you.” Take care of yourself first? Yes, that’s what in-flight caregivers are expected to do, for everyone’s best interest.
It makes good sense for caregivers at home, as well. That’s especially so when considering that the “flight” for home-based caregivers is often for an undetermined distance in time and energy. Their destination may be a long way off.
Informal Caregivers Contract
There are issues regarding dementia-Alzheimer’s that can be particularly draining on the energy, spirit, and health of a caregiver. It can also strain relationships. Changes in a loved one’s eating, sleeping, communication, and/or continence can be difficult to bear. Wandering, hallucinations, delusions, and repeating the same questions and information over and over, can wear down the caregiver’s ability to focus and provide effectively for even essential needs.
So, early on, when first accepting the challenge of giving care, also consider accepting the challenge to receive some care yourself. That is, decide who among your network of support might be best for agreeing to monitor you and your ability to carry on day-to-day. A written Caregivers Partnership Agreement could have the following parts:
- Getting Out of Yourself. Agree that you will let this special person in your life tell you when he or she sees that you may need relief, a time of respite and rejuvenation. What that means is stepping away to clear your head and recharge your batteries. Have lunch or dinner at a restaurant. Go to the library or a shopping mall. Visit a friend. Whatever it takes, accept that those islands in time and distance away from giving care can actually make your caregiving better.
- Touching Someone’s Ear. Agree that you’ll make regular telephone connection to someone in your support network, if for no other reason than to have contact with a person outside your home. Caution: Complaining might be inappropriate and unproductive, but reflecting what’s been happening and how you’re coping with it could be healthy for you. Being open to suggestions is healthy, too.
- Engaging Mutual Support. In many communities, through senior centers and churches, for instance, there are support groups that meet regularly with the needs of caregivers in mind. Being with others in your situation is a reminder that you’re not the only one in the world facing the challenges of caregiving. Shared comfort, compassion and suggestions can be illuminating, uplifting and helpful. Agree, early in your caregiving journey, to take advantage of support group support.
- Accepting Brief Relief. Going outside your home to take a break, attend a meeting or go to church will usually require someone else to be the substitute caregiver. Many community agencies and health plans provide for this sort of break. It could also come from a friend or relative. Implied is the attitude that, yes, another person can do the job for a while beside you. Believe it and welcome the relief.
- Keeping Consistently Healthy. The mental and physical toll on people who give care can be immense. Agree to see your family doctor on a regular basis. “Regular” may be just an annual checkup, but part of your agreement should include accepting someone else’s impression that you might benefit from a visit to the doctor. Depression, for example, in people giving long-term care isn’t usually recognized until too late. The signs are plentiful and can reflect more than routine weariness. Denial, anger, social withdrawal, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, lack of concentration and physical problems when left unattended can severely hinder your ability to attend to the person you’re caring for.
Key Activities to Focus on:
Exercising isn’t just to keep us in shape or to lose a few unwanted pounds. It is much more that that. Exercise helps give us energy and makes us feel relaxed when we are done. There are many ways to exercise. You can join a club if you have the time and money or you can do exercises in your home. The goal is to make exercise enjoyable and fun for you. Outdoors is also another wonderful place to do exercises. If you are on a tight schedule because of work, look into taking a short walk during your breaks. You don’t have to exercise for a long period of time. Anything that you do will help you feel relaxed and energized. It is equally important to exercise your brain!
Walking is probably one of the most convenient and easiest forms of exercise. If you don’t have time, you can walk during lunch breaks, take the dog out, walk around the block, or walk with friends. If your loved one is able to walk, invite them to come along. However, if you find this time to be alone, find time to do it yourself. Alone time is healthy.
This may be difficult if you do not have a pool, whether in your home or in an apartment/condo setting. However, if you do have the chance, it may be something that you really enjoy. Many community centers have pools, so if you are interested, start calling around. Aqua-Aerobics is also wonderful because the water makes it easier to move around. This might be a good exercise for a loved one who cannot do other exercises. If this sounds appealing, do speak to your loved one’s physician about an exercise program that you are considering for her/him to do.
This can be a good activity for those who enjoy music and like to dance. You can join a club or purchase videos and do them in your home. They come in all time lengths, so choose the one that best fits your needs.
Eating healthy will also get you on your way to becoming a healthy caregiver. Food doesn’t just provide us with good taste satisfaction, but also with nourishment. Food provides us with the energy that we need to keep going. We should all follow the food pyramid, but there is nothing wrong splurging once in awhile. Who can resist chocolate cake all the time?
You need time for yourself, whether it is grocery shopping or going to the movies. You may also have hobbies that you have not kept up due to being so busy with caregiving. Try to pick up where you left off or start a new project. You can do hobbies while your loved one is eating, sleeping, or bathing. If you have time, join hobby classes. The key is to do the activities that you enjoy. Life does not always have to be about working. Enjoy yourself! You so very much deserve it!
Family & Friends
Receive help from family and friends. This way, you will have time for yourself to do errands or other activities. Many caregivers feel awkward about receiving help. Don’t. Caregiving is often a full-time job in itself and it is only natural to need a time out. If you do not have family or friends that will help, you can look into services that are provided where you live.
By learning about caregiving and your loved one’s condition (i.e. if they have a dementing illness such as Alzheimer’s), you will be able to better care for your loved one. There is so much information out there concerning all areas of aging. The more we know, the better we can communicate and care for our loved ones. Also, if you have time, join a support group. You can learn so much through other caregivers.
Relieving Stress of Caregiving
When a caregiver is repeatedly exposed to emotionally challenging situations, this can result in caregiver burnout or a stress disorder. There are many ways to rejuvenate – from knitting and gardening to dancing, cooking and hiking. Each caregiver can create his or her own caregiver “first-aid toolkit” to replenish waning energy and sagging spirits. Here are a few more techniques that have proven helpful to relieving stress:
- Journaling: Writing in a private notebook is a safe way to express and clarify feelings and thoughts.
- Yoga, tai chi or qigong: These ancient movement techniques can release physical, emotional and spiritual blocks and keep one’s energy flowing freely.
- Meditation: In stillness and silence, it’s possible to refresh the mind and come home to one’s deep inner nature.
- Self-care: Healthy meals, plenty of water and exercise are critical steps in a personal wellness plan.
- Reaching out: Finding a support group of other like-minded individuals who have experienced similar challenges can be comforting. Counseling can also help.
- Bodywork: The body can release its pent-up feelings and traumas through the skillful intercession of healing professionals – from acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care to Reiki, Jin shin jyutsu, cranio-sacral release, and other techniques.
- Laughter: Humor relieves stress and soothes tensions. It is also heart-opening and can make difficult situations a lot easier to bear.
- Staying healthy: Too many caregivers neglect their own health, which only makes them fatigued and weak. Make sure to eat properly, find ways to relax so a good night’s sleep is more likely, exercise to help avoid problems from a heart to a sprained ankle that could impede one’s caregiving efforts. Caregivers also need to remember to check in regularly with their own health professional(s).
- Being realistic – Caregivers should never try to perform tasks beyond their physical capabilities. If a loved one needs to be lifted off or off the toilet or up and down stairs, it might be necessary to look for options. Example: moving the loved one to a downstairs bedroom, so stair climbing isn’t necessary, or looking into one of those chairs that move up and down a staircase. A simple raised toilet seat can make the lifting less strenuous.
- Seeing what the loved one can still do personally – Installing grab bars in a shower or tub may be all that’s needed for now to allow the loved one to shower or bathe without help. Buying a walker may allow them to stay more mobile.
- Not taking it personally – It’s very hard not to feel hurt or anger as a caregiver. Loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease often yell and say hurtful things, because they’ve lost their own emotional control. Caregivers may feel guilty that they haven’t done enough when they’ve actually been quite helpful and patient.
- Find counseling – Not all caregivers can shoulder the emotional strain alone. There are lots of wonderful counseling options for relieving caregiving’s mental strains and many of them are low-cost. One’s religious leader or doctor is an excellent resource. Check the local Department of Aging; many times they can offer direction. Watch the local newspaper listings; many offer notices of various support groups that are meeting (e.g., help for spouses of Parkinson’s disease patients).