9/1/2022 | By Katharine Ross

Full-time caregiving can be stressful, leading to burnout for the caregiver and negatively impacting the quality of care. Seniors Guide president Katharine Ross offers guidance for ensuring self care for caregivers.

If you’re a full-time caregiver living with a loved one who needs help, it is easy to get so focused on their needs that you neglect your own needs.

Whether your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or they have mobility challenges or some other type of challenge, you must give much of your attention to their needs: doctor’s appointments, activities of daily living, and so on. It can be stressful to be on call 24/7.

It might sound impossible to focus on yourself and to take time for yourself, but it pays off for both you and your loved ones.

I like to use the analogy from airline travel. In their safety demonstrations before takeoff, flight attendants tell people traveling with young children to put their oxygen mask on first before putting a mask on the child. The reason flight attendants tell us to do that – and as a mom I identify with this – if you’re so worried during that stressful situation about taking care of your child that you’re not focused on your own oxygen needs, you could very easily let yourself get depleted. If you’re depleted of oxygen, you’re no longer of any use to your child or anyone else around you, and you create a crisis that someone else has to solve.

In caregiving, that happens frequently. Caregivers are busy and generous and kind and so focused on others that they don’t even realize that they have allowed themselves to get depleted. They just wear out from unlimited demands and ongoing stressful situations.

Related: Tips for Alzheimer’s caregivers

Being worn out will have negative effects both on you as a caregiver and on the people around you – from the loved one you’re caring for to other family members, colleagues, and friends. When you’re burned out, you’re more likely to be impatient with the person you’re caring for. You may feel a little less compassion for them and you may be a bit snippier. You’re probably not conducting yourself in the way that you want to or in the way that aligns with the generosity of your spirit. Purposeful self care for caregivers will help you stay fresh, for your own health and for your loved ones.

Finding the right self care for caregivers

Caregiving can be stressful, leading to burnout and negatively impacting quality of care. Self-care for caregivers can remedy that problem.

I encourage you to sit with the question of what delights you, what fills your heart. Is it dinner with a friend? Is it walking and watching a beautiful sunset? Is it taking a nap? Is it uninterrupted reading? That’s what fills me up – a couple hours when I can just curl up with a book and not get asked any questions, not have anybody need something from me. That’s a luxury that sometimes feels unattainable!

Search your heart and think about what restores your spirit, what sets you right, fills your cup, and makes the world a better place for you. Once you figure out what that is, get deliberate about programming time for that in your day, in your week, in your month, and build a plan for it.

It’s going to sound selfish. It’s going to feel against your nature. That’s OK, just do it. Build a plan and make it non-negotiable. Whether it’s dinner once a month with your best friend, time spent on a hobby, or a weekly hike in a nearby park – if that is what you need, figure out a way to give yourself that opportunity.

Achieving your goals in caring for you

As a caregiver, you know that making time for yourself isn’t as easy as putting it on your calendar. You’ll also need to arrange for care, for someone to step in and be responsible for your loved one, just for that time. That in itself can be stressful – but you will find it’s worthwhile.

To achieve self care for caregivers, lean on friends and family members to hang out with your loved one or use an adult day service.

You may want to plan a longer break, such as a vacation, where you can go somewhere and indulge yourself and reset and restore. Then a respite care solution can help meet your needs.

These things that you do for yourself don’t need to be extravagant – they just need to light your heart up. Self care will help you take better care of your loved ones – because if you’re healthy, you’re more capable.

Related: Caregiver flexibility in meeting unexpected crises

Another resource is friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Get deliberate and specific in your request. Say, “I need you to take Mom to the doctor once a week,” or “I need you to come and do lunch with Mom once a week.” That’s why we have our social networks – that’s what we’re all here to do for each other. If you had someone that you cared about who was putting themselves on the line day after day to take care of someone that you both mutually cared about, wouldn’t you be happy to help them? When you sit with that question and realize that you would be happy doing this for others, don’t be ashamed to ask for someone to do it for you.

Carve time out for yourself. Prioritize what delights you!

Katharine Ross

Katharine Ross joined Seniors Guide in 2001 and has been helping seniors and caregivers find the resources they need ever since. She’s had a front row seat to the industry’s evolution in preparing for the demands of baby boomers, and she’s seen how caring and effective providers have navigated the challenges of contemporary society. She wants to empower seniors and caregivers to create their best lives by having access to the accurate, useful information. When she’s not working, Ross is chasing her son across ski slopes and bike trails.