Self Care for Caregivers: Why is it so important?

November 1, 2016

slow down, relax, take it easy, keep calm and other motivational lifestyle reminders on colorful sticky notesAs anyone who has ever been responsible for the care of another can attest, being a caregiver can be a physically- and emotionally-challenging task, and one that can upend the balance of our lives.

It’s easy to ignore your own needs when somebody else’s seem so much more present or overwhelming. In fact, you might even feel like you’re acting selfish when you attend to your own needs (you’re not!). The truth is, when you forget to take care of yourself first, your effectiveness as a caregiver only diminishes.

Think about it — it is no accident that flight attendants instruct parents to put their own oxygen masks on first and then care for the masks of their children. If our physical and/or emotional reserves are compromised, how can we properly and effectively care for someone else?

Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others. ” – Christopher Germer

Ok. I understand why I should practice self-care, but how do I do it?

  1. Get adequate sleep. Most of us know we should try to avoid screens (computers, tv, phones) one – two hours prior to going to bed and cut out the caffeine later in the day, but did you know that certain foods can actually help you catch your zzz’s. Studies have shown that foods such yogurt, fish, tart cherry juice, jasmine rice, and even kale can lead to a better night’s sleep.Experts also suggest that trying to keep a consistent bedtime can be helpful, as well as including activities in your bedtime routine such as: taking a warm bath (with lavender), reading in bed, or listening to soft music.
  2. Check in with yourself and your emotions…and get support. Being able to share your feelings and experiences with others can be one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself. While you may feel like you don’t have the time or that you are getting your emotional needs met from family and friends, sharing your experiences with people who are going through similar struggles, such as those in a caregiver support group, can make you feel less isolated and alone.According to a 2011 review in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, caregivers who attended caregiver support groups, reported feeling less depressed and burdened and had an improved sense of overall well-being.
  3. Exercise. There is no question that exercise can make a tremendous difference in your overall health and well-being and your loved one’s as well. Whether you do a full workout in the gym, engage in a home based fitness routine or even just a walk around the neighborhood is irrelevant; the important part is that you move.Research suggests that even just 15 minutes a day of exercise can make a difference in your physical and mental health as well, reducing stress, depression and even helping with sleep.
  4. Breathe. Deep breathing is a well-known and well-researched relaxation technique with numerous benefits, including: releasing tensions, reducing blood pressure, aches and pain and promoting healthy sleep. When you practice deep breathing, you focus on the the “now,” the present, not all your responsibilities and problems.Have you ever noticed that in times of stress, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow? By slowing down your breathing and taking deep, deliberate breaths, you can begin to experience relaxation and calm. One very simple breathing exercise that can be done almost anywhere (doctor’s waiting room, in line at the grocery store or in bed) and ideally multiple times a day is to: 1) Inhale through your nose for the count of 5, focusing on expanding your belly 2) Hold your breath for a count of 3 3) Exhale slowly through your mouth for 5. For more breathing exercises, visit here.
  5. Accept help when it is offered and ask for it when it is not. Even though you may be tempted to turn away help when it is offered because you think you “should” be able to manage it all yourself or it is just “easier” to handle it on our own, take it. It will give you a much needed break to get other stuff done or allow you time to focus on just caring for yourself. It may be helpful to compile a list of tasks that others can assist with and if you aren’t getting offers of help, reach out to those closest to you and ask for help. One helpful resource for organizing caregiving assistance is sharethecare.org.

Practicing self-care does not have to be an hours-long activity. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes, a few times a day to make a difference in your state of mind, your day, and in turn what you can offer others.

By Danielle Mazur, LICSW

Danielle Mazur is a Helpline Specialist and case manager at Iona. As a specialist, she helps older adults (or those calling on behalf of an older adult) connect with a variety of resources. In case management, she assists older adults manage aging-related challenges and ensures they get the support they need to live safely and successfully at home. Danielle has a Masters of Science in Social Work from Columbia University in New York.