By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Looking after a parent, spouse or child takes its toll on the caretaker. While you must do all you can for your loved one, it is important to also take care of yourself.
Scratch that – it’s not just important, it’s essential.
You matter as much as the person you are caring for. However, all too often the caretaker is so preoccupied with looking after their loved one that self-care takes a back seat. You become stressed, tired, withdrawn, and frustrated.
If a caregiver’s stress is left unchecked, it can result in burnout. And how are you going to provide vital care for another when you can’t look after yourself?
One in four American adults is caring from a sick or elderly family member, according to 2013 research from the Pew Research Center and the California HealthCare Foundation, and the number looks set to rise as the population ages.
Give yourself a break and help restore your strength and balance with these tips and ideas. Making rest, relaxation and alternative remedies a priority is not a luxury – it’s a necessity.
The Care Burden: How Many People Suffer?
It is clear that family caregivers require support throughout the illness of their loved one, according to a 2010 study from the University of Edinburgh, UK.
You've heard of sympathy pains some husbands get when their wives are pregnant? A similar phenomenon occurs between caretakers and the cared for. Researchers suggest that caretakers may experience the same patterns of well-being or distress that their sick loved ones experience.
Many caregivers feel like they really are sharing the illness, and that health problems undermine their ability to care.
In a 2010 study carried out at the University of Granada, eight out of 10 people caring for a relative reported suffering stress and anxiety.
In a 2015 study by researchers at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand, 19.5 percent of people caring for relatives with schizophrenia reported severe depressive symptoms, and 65.5 percent believed themselves to be in poor physical health.
Forty-two percent of caregivers for elderly sufferers of dementia experienced emotional distress in a 2002 study by Psychological Healthcare Services Ltd, England.
Looking at these figures – and there are many more besides – it is obvious that a majority of caretakers need to take better care of themselves.
Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Stress and Burnout
Are you caring for a relative? Do you regularly experience any of the following symptoms: anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue, feeling run down, difficulty sleeping, overeating or not eating enough, difficulty concentrating, feelings of resentment, drinking or smoking more, cutting back on leisure time or hobbies, or new or worsening health problems?
Signs that a caretaker has entered into “burnout” include the feeling that you have much less energy than you previously had, that you are constantly ill or suffering from colds or flu, that you are exhausted no matter how long you sleep, that you are increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you are caring for, and that you feel helpless, hopeless, or dissatisfied with your life.
Balance Tips for Caregivers
If you are experiencing caretaker stress or burnout, it is important to take a close look at your lifestyle and your mental health. Looking after another person without a break or any time out is a surefire way to completely burn out. Don’t try to do it alone – speak up about how you are feeling, and get a dialogue going with other family members about your needs. Try to get as many other family members or friends involved as possible.
And say "yes" when someone offers you assistance. All too often a caretaker likes to remain in control and fears losing it if they delegate or accept help.
Try to set aside a minimum of 30 minutes every day for yourself. Do whatever you enjoy – a workout, a walk, reading, knitting, playing with the dogs in the yard.
Try to take small opportunities to pamper yourself and lift your spirits such as enjoying a candlelit bubble bath or getting a manicure.
Most of all, don’t isolate yourself. If you cannot easily leave the house, invite people over for a coffee and a chat. Join a support group.
Don’t add to the considerable stress you are already under as a caretaker by letting your body run down. Keep current with doctors’ visits and make sure you exercise and eat well.
Yoga for Caretakers
Yoga is a surefire way to help bring balance and strength as you juggle the multiple demands of being a caregiver.
A 2014 study from the University of Regina, Saskatchewan and Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada found that a six-week Vinyasa yoga program had a significant positive impact on the quality of life and in minimizing psychological stress in caregivers for patients with cancer. Participants reported improvements in their psychological wellbeing as well as in their flexibility, core and upper-body strength, balance, breathing, and energy.
If you can’t or don’t want to spend long yoga sessions by yourself, how about involving the person you are caring for? A 2015 study from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center reveals the considerable benefits of a couple-based Tibetan yoga program for lung cancer patients and their caregivers.
Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness for Caregivers
Try meditation – a daily meditative practice helps you feel more centered even within the most overwhelming day and can help to relieve stress and boost feelings of wellbeing. A 2015 study by the University of South Australia, Adelaide found that dementia caregivers undergoing a program of transcendental meditation (TM) demonstrated “varying degrees of improvement in several measures of cognitive function, mood, quality of life and stress” following exposure to a 14-hour program of TM.And mindfulness can help too.
And a 2012 study from the University of South Florida shows a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for cancer sufferers and caregivers is successful for reducing stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels in both sufferers and caretakers.
Do Scents Help Caregivers?
Yes, according to new 2009 research from the Technical Research Center in Japan, the scent of lemon, mango, lavender or other fragrant plants can help reduce stress levels. The researchers suggest that people who inhale the scent of these plants reduce the activity of over 100 genes that go into overdrive in stressful situations. Even if it doesn’t solve all your problems, filling the house with fragrant plants is at least a good way to stay cheerful and feel better about your surroundings when caring for a sick relative.
Diet for Caretakers
When you are under stress as a caregiver your body is placed under pressure and needs a bigger boost than normal from your diet.
You need to keep your levels of iron and zinc up, and you should ensure that you eat a balanced diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, lentils, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and wholegrains.
Everyone needs a balanced diet but when you are under stress it is so much more important, according to a 2014 study from UC San Francisco.
These scientists discovered that the impact of stress accumulates over time and can accelerate cellular aging, but that these negative effects can be reduced by eating a healthy diet as well as sleeping well and exercising. As the researchers observed, “it's very important that we promote healthy living, especially under circumstances of typical experiences of life stressors like death, caregiving and job loss."
Finally, if you're looking for a quick pick-me-up snack to help manage stress, you can't do better than a handful of walnuts. In one 2010 study from Penn State, walnuts were revealed as stress-busters. A diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil helps the body deal better with stress, according to the scientists that studied 22 healthy adults. Including walnuts and walnut oil in the diet lowered resting blood pressure and blood pressure responses to stress.