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How to Care for Yourself
Image show an older man watering plants in a window box.

When you’re a caregiver, it can be easy to place the needs and preferences of your loved one before your own. But how can you care for others when your own needs are not being met? If you’ve ever flown on a commercial airline, you probably are familiar with the pre-flight instructions about unexpected changes in cabin pressure. The flight crew always advises you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.

If you have a loved one living with a chronic condition or disabling disease, illness or injury, you may experience another kind of pressure change: the one that comes with balancing caregiving duties with everyday life. Failing to do so can lead to stress and feelings of guilt that ultimately interfere with your ability to care for your loved one. We’re not saying you should put your own needs ahead of others’, but it is important to find and maintain balance.

Physical Health

Take care of your own physical health. Doing so will ensure that you have the strength and energy you need to provide for your loved ones.

  • Stay active and get plenty of exercise. While caregiving certain requires its fair share of physical activity, it’s important to devote 20-30 minutes every day to simple exercise that raises your heart rate. Walking or lifting dumbbells are effective exercises that require little preparation and are easy to fit into your caregiving responsibilities.
  • Eat well. The time and physical demands of caregiving can make it challenging to eat right. Pressed for time, you may be tempted to skip meals or rely on convenience foods that you can grab quickly and easily. Stay on a regular meal schedule and eat a variety of foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure you have the energy you need to make it through the day.
  • Don’t ignore your own health needs. See your health care professional regularly, and especially if you are sick or injured. Keep up on maintenance medications and take time for recovery, as your provider recommends. Have a plan for who can take care of your loved one if you need to take time to care for yourself.

Stress

We often experience stress in our day-to-day lives, but being a caregiver can add greatly to that stress. Caregivers often feel like they’re being pulled in many directions and that they can’t do all the things they feel they need to do, let alone the things they want to do. You won’t be able to fully eliminate stress, but you can keep it at manageable levels.

  • Prioritize needs. If you feel like you can’t do everything expected of you, take time to determine which tasks are the most important and focus on them first. Seek help with lower-priority items, and give yourself permission to let them go.
  • Take a break every day. Give yourself at least 10-20 minutes of “me time” every day. Read a book, play a game, check social media, listen to music or talk to a friend. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted or interrupted – you deserve this time.
  • Reward yourself occasionally. Don’t underestimate the power of an occasional indulgence. Buy yourself some flowers, have an ice cream cone or buy a new outfit. Whatever makes you feel happy.
  • Keep friendships and build new ones. It can be easy to put your social life on hold as a caregiver. Take the time to maintain friendships and foster new ones so that you have a support network when you need it. You may be surprised at how willing your friends can be to help.
  • Deal with difficult situations. Things will get tough from time to time. When you’re in the moment, your attention and energy will be focused on making it through. However, once the situation is over, it helps to take time to think about and learn from the experience. Decide what you can do to avoid the situation in the future or handle it better.

Guilt

Caregiving often comes with a range of emotions, but guilt can often be the toughest one to deal with. You may feel guilty that you can’t be there for your loved one as much as you believe they need or want you to be. You may feel guilty about tending to your own needs when your loved one wants your help. You may feel guilty about making others depend on themselves more so that you can focus on caregiving. Whatever the reasons, you can help yourself feel a little less guilty with these tips.

  • Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Few caregivers can do everything they think they need to do. Do your best and accept that your best will do.
  • Forgive yourself in advance. You will be unable to do everything you feel you should do. You will make mistakes. You will get angry. You will get frustrated. You will feel like giving up. Accept that you will sometimes fall short of your own expectations, forgive yourself and keep moving forward.
  • Understand the source of your guilt. Is it internal (you feel like you could have done better) or external (others tell you that you should have done more)? Force yourself to be objective and know why you feel guilty. Then you can put emotions in check and deal with the root cause.