Any experienced caregiver would have recognized the warning signs of a burned-out caregiver: irritability, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and mild depression. But I was too engaged in just getting through my daily routines as I shuttled my husband back and forth to his doctor. His respiratory virus still wasn’t testing positive for pneumonia but his symptoms kept getting worse. One night we spent three hours in the ER only to be sent home after nothing could be diagnosed.
A few days later, after a long exhausting day at the doctor’s office, I was doing the dinner dishes and told my husband:
“I wish someone would take care of me.”
Be careful what you wish for. The next morning I woke up feeling sick and when I got out of bed, I fainted. When I came to, the pain was excruciating. I knew I’d broken or twisted something. Several hours later I was admitted to the hospital with two broken ribs and a punctured lung. And a few hours later, my husband was admitted with pneumonia. We spent the weekend on the same floor just down the hallway from each other. What a surreal experience!
I sure was “taken care of” but not in the way I ever could have imagined. I also learned some important lessons in caregiving.
More than 65 million Americans are serving as caregivers for loved ones, preparing meals, taking over household duties, managing doctor appointments and medications. Caregiving is tough, relentless and physically and emotionally draining. According to an article by The Doctors in USA Weekend, more than half of caregivers feel overwhelmed and report higher levels of stress than the average person.
To care for others effectively, you have to look after your own well-being too. Here are some strategies to help caregivers stay happy and healthy.
Strategies to Help Caregivers Stay Happy and Healthy
Recognize the warning signs of stress. If you’re irritable or exhausted most of the time, have trouble sleeping, are more forgetful or lose interest in activities you normally enjoy, it could indicate you’re under too much stress, which can harm your health over time. If you have a history of depression, pay even closer attention to the red flags. Caregiving doesn’t necessarily cause depression but may raise the risk for those who are vulnerable to it.
Change the things you can. Identify your sources of stress. Maybe you’re trying to do too much. Focus on matters that you have control over and then take a small step toward a solution. Have coffee with a friend once a week or call a financial planner to alleviate some anxiety and stress.
Accept help. This one can be challenging because it’s hard to ask for help. Make a list of ways that others can help you and let the helper choose what he or she would like to do. One person might be willing to take the person you care for on a walk a couple of times a week. Someone else might offer to pick up groceries or even cook for you.
Seek support. Maintaining a strong support system is key to managing the stress of caregiving. Make an effort to stay emotionally connected with family and friends. Set aside time each week for socializing, even if it’s just a walk with a friend. Whenever possible, make plans that get you out of the house.
Set personal health goals. For example, set a goal to find time to be physically active on most days of the week, or set a goal for getting a good night’s sleep. It’s also crucial to eat a healthy diet.
Join a support group. A support group can be a great source for encouragement and advice from others in similar situations. It can also be a good place to make new friends.
Caregiving strains even the most resilient people. I know because I’ve always considered myself a strong person. But I learned my lesson the hard way and in the future I’ll be much more conscious of taking care of myself. After the outpouring of help from family and friends, I also know that I can ask for assistance when I need it. People really do want to help. They just need to be asked.