Caring for an aging, disabled, or chronically ill loved one is a reality that many people face. In fact, according to a 2020 report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than one in five Americans is a family caregiver. Often, caregivers tend to live with chronically elevated stress levels and may neglect their own self-care – factors that raise the risk for negative impacts on both emotional and physical wellbeing.
The CDC reports that 53% of caregivers experience a decline in their own health, making them more likely than the general public to develop their own chronic illness (82% versus 61%).
So it’s vitally important that caregivers take the time to also care for themselves. After all, you can’t care for someone else if you’re not caring for yourself.
Caregivers Are at Risk
Caring for someone with a chronic illness can lead to decreased quality of life, a decline in psychological health, increased stress, depression, and anxiety. Research has shown the negative emotional consequences of caregiving, which can lead to dysfunctional coping skills, strained relationships, reduced life satisfaction, and emotional and physical illness. The stress of caregiving can also precipitate psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. It is not uncommon for caregivers to identify a need for treatment from a mental health provider, but few actually seek the professional support they truly need.
Adults who are both raising children and caring for aging parents – often referred to as the “sandwich generation” – face a unique set of stressors that comes with balancing the needs of multiple loved ones (alongside work and other interpersonal relationships).
Managing Caregiver Stress Means Putting on Your Oxygen Mask First
While it’s understandable to feel that there isn’t time for yourself when caring for others, there are resources and strategies you can use to ensure you’re giving yourself the same care and attention you give your loved one.
Below are five tips to alleviate caregiver stress.
- Brainstorm new ways to manage caregiving tasks. Don’t pressure yourself to solve every challenge alone. Brainstorm with family, friends, doctors, or a social worker who may have similar experiences and can offer a fresh perspective.
- Plan and prepare. While it can feel overwhelming or sad to think further down the line about your loved one’s condition, it can be helpful to know what to expect so you can be as prepared as possible. Talk to your loved one’s doctor about their prognosis and what to expect. You can even think through “if this, then this” scenarios to help with planning.
- Take a mini-vacation. A long vacation can be challenging to manage when you’re caring for someone, but a short break can do wonders for stress and fatigue. Think small. Consider booking one night in a nearby hotel, having a staycation at home, or taking a day trip to a local park or beach. The important thing is to schedule time for yourself to do something you enjoy.
- Nurture your social life. As a caregiver, you may feel isolated or too overwhelmed to keep up with friends. Reach out to friends and allow yourself the time to take people up on plans. Go to that movie with your best friend or meet your friend group for dinner. It’s important to give yourself the time and grace to focus on things other than caregiving duties.
- Seek professional support. If you’re feeling burned out, stressed, or anxious, it may be time to get help from a therapist. Sometimes we can’t manage all of the stressors life throws at us, and if you’re a caregiver, those stressors could be through the roof. A trained counselor can help you develop stress management skills to ensure you’re emotionally healthy and in the best place possible to care for your loved one.
Failure to seek help has been identified as a factor in caregiver burnout and mental health disorders. Caring.com has created A Caregiver’s Guide to Coping with Stress and Burnout to help you identify if you may be at risk. It includes additional ways to manage stress and offers coping strategies for caregiver burnout, so you can continue to care for your loved one and care for yourself.
Caring.com offers free, expert help to families coping with the many challenges of caring for an aging loved one.
Take Care of Yourself, Too
Acting as a caregiver is a labor of love, and one that can be fulfilling. But it’s also important to recognize that it’s not easy and that you need care, too. Using these tips – whether taking a mini vacation or talking with a trained counselor – you can keep yourself healthy while caring for others.