Taking care of a sick loved one is taxing on many levels. The work, the worry and the drain on time and money can have damaging effects on the caregiver’s own mental and physical health. The problem is so common that health experts have coined a name for it: “caregiver stress.” Stressed-out caregivers have increased risk for high blood pressure, high insulin levels, impaired immune systems, depression and cardiovascular disease. Even worse, a study of spousal caregivers ages 66 to 96 found that those suffering from caregiver stress have a 63 percent higher death rate than noncaregivers of the same age. The bottom line: You can’t effectively care for your mate if you’re not in good health yourself.
6 steps to self-care
To stay healthy, both physically and mentally, try these practices suggested by the Family Caregiver Alliance:
- Learn to control your stress. Your stress can manifest in various ways such as irritability, sleep problems and forgetfulness. Try walking, gardening, meditating or meeting a friend for coffee to reduce your stress.
- Set goals. First, define the things you’d like to achieve and then break them down into easy action steps. For example, if your goal is to feel healthier, you could:
- make a doctor’s appointment
- take a half-hour break once a week
- take a 10-minute walk three times a week
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is crucial to helping you maintain the endurance, balance and strength you need to care for your loved one. Exercise helps you sleep better, relieves tension, fights depression and increases energy. And it doesn’t take much exercise to improve your health. Walking three times a week makes a big difference. Activities such as running errands and doing household chores also get the muscles moving and blood flowing.
- Listen to your feelings. Anger. Guilt. Resentment. These are all common emotions for most caregivers. But when these emotions become overly intense, it may mean you’re under too much stress or you need to ask for help.
- Find time for you. If you enjoy activities like reading, solving crossword puzzles, creating scrapbooks or seeing movies, make time to do them. If you no longer find pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed, you should recognize your lack of interest as a sign of depression. Talk to your doctor right away, especially if you’re having suicidal thoughts.
- Ask for help. Many caregivers are reluctant to “burden” others or admit they can’t handle everything. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Even little things, like having someone pick up some groceries or mow your lawn, can take some of the load off your shoulders. You’ll be doing your loved one—and yourself—a favor.