How to care for yourself when you're a caregiver

Unquestionably, the only person who would ever tell you that care giving is an easy job is someone that has never had to do it themselves.  For the person needing care, the loss of independence coupled with increasing physical and perhaps mental frailty can be exceptionally harrowing.  Although care is usually given with love, it can - on occasion - be received with some measure of resentment, especially if it means a reversal of the parent/child roles that you have been used to fulfilling.

Relaxing is important for caregivers

Even on a good day, with a cordial relationship based on love and respect, looking after a senior member of the family can lead to increased stress levels, and eventually care giver burnout.  When your focus is someone else's needs, your own can sometimes fade into the background, and it's surprisingly easy to lose sight of the situation getting out of control until it's too late.

Signs that the frustrations of losing some of your own freedoms, relationships and indeed privacy to care for someone else are getting too much shouldn't be overlooked.  If you notice that you're constantly physically and emotionally wrung out, or worse still entertaining thoughts of hurting yourself or the person you're caring for, it's time to find ways to take breaks to alleviate the strain.

  • Make sure you're sleeping properly. It can be difficult to get decent rest if you're having to get up every few hours to check on someone or give medication.  However, napping when the person you're caring for is also asleep during the day might help you top up too.
  • Cook proper meals where possible. Relying on snacks and quick meals from the chiller cabinet instead of preparing food from scratch may be essential to stay on top of care duties at times, but where you can, cook meals in bulk to stock up the freezer.
  • Talk to others. You may feel that none of your family and friends understand your position, or even that they've forgotten or abandoned you.  The sad truth is that unless they've experienced a similar care situation, they may not be able to empathize to the degree that you need.  Message boards and online support groups can be a lifeline where simple solidarity accompanies offers of practical solutions.
  • Take advantage of respite care. Progressive conditions such as dementia, especially where challenging or even violent behavior can accompany physical decline inevitably reach a point where not only can you not do it alone any longer, but you may have to consider full-time residential care so that your senior can establish a routine that will be comforting and reassuring to them.  Even if you haven't yet reached this stage, making sure you can step away from the care situation from time to time is essential to your well being.
  • Don't beat yourself up. You're not required to feel "up" and positive all the time, and nor are you obliged not to feel like screaming with frustration.  Caring is tough, and it will get on top of you at times.  Don't blame yourself for the bad days.

The most important thing of all to accept is that if you're the caregiver of an elderly parent or in-law, then you are unlikely to be in the first flush of youth yourself.  Pay close attention to your own physical and mental health, especially if you have a family history of classic middle-age disorders such as high blood pressure or arthritis, and don't ignore warning signs that all is not well.  After all, you can't provide care if you need care yourself.