Most of us will serve in a caretaker role at some point in our lives whether it is a spouse, parent, child, or friend who is in pain, ill, or otherwise disabled.
Maybe you’re in that role right now and in over your head.
Caregiving is the perfect example of a chronic stress experience. It creates both physical and psychological stress. It’s unpredictable. It requires you to be ‘on-call’ at all hours of the day. It creates stress in other areas of your life like work and family responsibilities.
All of that leaves you no time to take care of yourself. Eventually, you find yourself in pain and poor health. Thus, decreasing the effectiveness of your caregiving.
You know how when you fly on a plane they tell you to put on your oxygen mask before assisting others? You have to take care of yourself before you can really help someone else.
Let’s examine why caretakers often become unhealthy themselves and what signs to look for. Then, we will reveal how to find the time to focus on your health and increase your effectiveness as a caretaker.
Caretaking = stress = problems
Caretaking obviously comes with great rewards. It’s something you want to provide. You tend to put your heart and soul into it knowing that your loved one is getting what they need and deserve.
But, man, caretaking is time-consuming and stressful. The negative effects on the caretaker from their role can almost always be traced back to stress.
Here’s what chronic stress does to your body:
- Increases depression and anxiety. These can increase your risk for other health problems like heart disease and stroke.
- Weakens your immune system. This means you might spend more days sick with a cold or flu and your flu vaccine won’t work as well. Thus, your effectiveness as a caretaker really takes a hit.
- Makes you fat. Stress causes more weight gain in women than men. As we all know, being overweight or obese puts you at risk for a multitude of other health problems.
- Puts you at risk for chronic diseases. Chronic stress has been linked to increased inflammation in the body which is associated with heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
- Reduces quality of sleep. Being constantly stressed out makes it difficult to achieve restful, quality sleep. Poor sleep does a number on your hormone levels that control blood sugar regulation and appetite.
Given this burden of constant stress, caretakers are less likely than the general population to practice self-health behaviors and get proper medical care.
So, you’re probably eating like crap, sleeping poorly, not exercising, and not going to the doctor’s or having your normal screenings (mammograms, blood work, etc).
You’re constantly running on empty and just driving ‘til the wheels fall off. This is a recipe for disaster.
How do you find the time to stay healthy?
In order to take care of yourself, you must carve out the time to do it. Sounds impossible to do, right?
Certainly it will not happen overnight but it does get easier over time once you find your groove. Make lists and keep a planner. Set reminders on your phone. If you need it, consider using respite care services (a substitute caretaker to give you a break) to look after your loved one.
Intention often wins over motivation.
Research has demonstrated that people who set intentions for exercising (“I will exercise for 20 minutes on this day at this time at this place”) were much more likely to follow through on their plan over those who did not.
You can’t go through life just putting out fires every day; you will burn out. Planning and prevention along with an active mindset are key.
Here’s your ‘must-do’ list regarding your own health when you are a caretaker:
- Keep stress in check. Use stress-relieving techniques like yoga, meditation, prayer, etc. These go a long way.
- Get adequate rest. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. A good night’s rest does a lot of good for your energy levels, immune system, and performance.
- Work on proper nutrition. It does not take that much longer to prepare a healthy, home-cooked meal than it does to roll through the drive-thru. Plan your meals and keep healthy snacks on you to avoid temptation.
- Get moving. Find little ways to increase your activity throughout the day like taking the stairs or taking a walk during your lunch break. Ten-minute bursts of exercise add up and do a lot of good.
- Take care of your own healthcare needs. Make sure you are taking your medications. Stay up to date on doctor’s visits and testing. Don’t let your health fall through the cracks.
- Take time to do things that you like to do. Take a hot bath, read a book, get coffee with a friend. These things are important to help you stay sane.
With a little bit of planning and determination, and perhaps some outside help, you can achieve this.
Help is out there, don’t be afraid to ask
Being a caretaker is a big job. It’s difficult for anyone to be able to do everything that needs to be done.
We all want to be the superhero who can do it all, however, you can’t do it all on your own. As the saying goes, “it takes a village.”
Here are some ways that you can utilize your resources to become a better and more efficient caretaker:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for and accept help. This is not a sign of weakness. If someone offers to run an errand or cook, let them help.
- Take time off from caregiving without feeling guilty. It’s okay to take a break sometimes.
- Learn to say “no.” Is it going to be too much for you to host Thanksgiving this year with everything else you have going on? Say so.
- Set goals. Prioritize, make daily goals, and establish a daily routine. Continually evaluate and intervene as needed.
- Join a support group for caretakers. Support groups will help you to find like-minded people who are in a similar situation. Do an online search for groups in your area.
- Find community resources. Many communities have caretaker support services such as respite services. You may also find meal or grocery delivery services or housekeeping services.
If you really look, there are plenty of resources all around you to help you take care of your loved one.
We want to do the best job we can to take care of our loved one who is pain or otherwise needs our help.
As much as we would like to, we just can’t do it all without running ourselves ragged and putting our health in jeopardy.
As the caretaker, your health and well-being is a priority so start treating it that way. Practice self-care and stress relieving techniques to make sure you stay well (and sane).
Don’t be afraid to seek out help when you need it and take advantage of the resources available to you.
Good planning and execution will help you to become a healthier and more efficient caretaker. Your ‘patient’ will thank you.
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at https://shannonthenp.com.