How to Care for Yourself When Your Job Is Caring for Others
After 22 years of caring for my son who has autism, he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease of the cornea that, in some cases, can lead to blindness. Sadly, we found out that he had very little vision in his left eye and would require a cornea transplant. Additionally, several months prior, my father, who had been having quite a few health problems, was diagnosed with vascular dementia.
Faced with the responsibility of helping two ill family members, I felt I may collapse from the stress. But there are many others—dubbed the "Sandwich Generation"— in a similar situation. A Pew Research Center survey of 844 participants in 2012 found that 47% of adults between 40–59 years old had a parent aged 65 or older and were raising a minor or supporting an adult child. Fifteen percent provided financial support to a parent aged 65 or older, or a child of any age, in the past year.
With all of the time and energy you put into caring for your loved ones, it's just as important to take care of yourself. How can you continue caring for them if you aren't doing well yourself? Here's how I cope with the stress and maintain a happy outlook despite facing large medical challenges.
Are You Stressed or Burned Out?
Signs Of Caregiver Stress
Signs Of Caregiver Burnout
Anxiety or depression
Catching every cold or flu that goes around
Overreacting to minor irritations
Neglecting your own needs
New or worsening health problems
You get no satisfaction from caregiving
You can't relax
Increasing impatience and irritablility
Drinking, eating or smoking too much
Feelings of helplessness and hoplessnes
Neglecting other responsibilities
Cutting back on leisure activities
How I Avoid Caregiver Burnout
- Focus on Wellness
- Reach Out to Others for Help
- Get Up, Dress Up, Make Up, and Show Up
- Laugh, A LOT!
- Help Out
- Stay in the Present
1. Focus on Wellness
Eat Well and Exercise Any Way Possible
It was about six years ago that my father became ill, and I had to help my mom care for him as well as care for my son. Succumbing to the stress, I ate junk food and gained 60 pounds! I really went into a tailspin. I stopped exercising and really didn't take good care of myself.
Fortunately, I have a loving husband who stands with me, helping me lose weight and get back into exercise. We are avid bicyclers and have done most of the trails in northern Illinois as well as trails in Michigan and Wisconsin. We have adopted a whole foods, plant-based diet that has helped return my blood pressure back to normal and lower my cholesterol levels.
You aren't any good to anyone if you're sick yourself. Make a point of eating healthy even if it means spending a bit more on groceries each week. Go to the gym, walk the dog, put on your Fitbit and climb the stairs in your house. Feeling physically slow and lethargic made me feel sad. I now have more energy and feel better physically. Mind you, I do still have my chocolate moments, but I cope better with regular exercise and healthy foods.
Get Enough Sleep
For those of us who care for loved ones with dementia and/or autism, sleep hygiene can become a major concern. My father roams around the house at night, not necessarily sure of where he is. My mother is 80, and she physically can't go without sleep on a regular basis. We have hired night-time help for my mother so she doesn't need to be up with my dad.
My son also has his nights when he can't sleep and is quite loud, disrupting our sleep. At this point, my son's sleep habits are not so bad that we need to hire help, but I can see a day when it will be necessary. Going without sleep can adversely affect your health, so coming up with a solution that is practical and affordable is necessary, though it may not be easy.
2. Reach Out
Suffering in silence benefits no one. Ask for help from friends and family. Even if they can't provide all the help you need, even a few hours a week to simply get out of the house can give some much needed breathing room.
If you are a member of a religious organization, many members are willing to cook meals, provide rides to and from doctor appointments, or just spare you an hour so you can get out of the house and take a break.
Speak with your doctor. Many physicians, particularly those who work with the elderly, can refer you to resources in your community that can help out. Contact your state's department of aging or disabilities. Many states have programs that help seniors, as well as the disabled, live in their homes. There may be financial aid available to you that you aren't even aware of.
3. Get Up, Dress Up, Make Up, Show Up
Who hasn't had one of those days when you just don't want to get out of bed? When you're caring for two people, that just isn't an option, and wallowing in self pity makes for a pretty crummy day. So when I'm having one of those days I do as Dr. Phil says: "Fake it until you make it." I actually did get this strategy from one of Dr. Phil's shows from long ago. He referred to it as "behave your way to change."
So everyday, unless I am actually ill and can't get out of bed, I get up, shower, put on a nice outfit (no sweats), do my hair and makeup, and head out. I make a point of attending book club, walking the dog, or simply grocery shopping while looking my best. It doesn't make all my problems go away, but it does make me feel better about myself, which helps.
4. Laugh, A LOT!
When I was younger and unmarried, I really enjoyed movies that were heavy on drama. Now that my life is as dramatic as it gets, I can't laugh enough. I love funny movies, and my favorite is "Something About Mary." I love collecting funny stories and jokes off the Internet; I actually put together a scrapbook of my personal favorites. I read at least one every day to lighten my mood. It feels good.
Of course, having a good laugh is always better with friends. I like to post one joke a day on Facebook. I'm not the only person who has some tough moments, so I figure it's good to share laughter. I always call my husband at least once a day to share a laugh with him; he needs it since he also has a stressful job. Laughing feels so good. Try it. You'll like it.
5. Help Out
While not a traditional strategy to reduce stress, I find it relaxing and healing to help others. The question becomes what to do that feels good emotionally while not adding to my work load.
I love to bake. I find it therapeutic as well as creative. I love to make up new recipes and also decorate cookies and cakes. My son also loves to bake. Once a month, we bake cookies like crazy and deliver them to a shelter that gives them out to homeless teens. It feels good to help others while practicing a hobby we love. If we are having a bad week, we can push our "cookie date" to a different day without letting anyone down.
6. Stay in the Present
Consciously staying in the present keeps your mind from going down a dark path. Just like you let the past go because what's done is done, don't think too much about the future. Enjoy today. Have that birthday party. Go on the vacation of your dreams. Stay connected to all your family members now; they may not be here to tomorrow. Don't wait to have your child's birthday party until "he can handle it better." Live in the now and make joyful, lasting memories.
How do you prefer to handle the stress of caring for a loved one?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2015 Chantelle Porter