5/31/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

As loved ones age and need greater care, family members may become their caregivers – a potentially challenging task. In the final installment of “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging,” Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones addresses the need for self-care while caregiving – specifically, the need for accepting as well as giving help.

My father, who has vascular dementia, has forgotten how to get his own food, how to use the telephone, and where he’s put his cane at any given moment. He frequently misplaces things and occasionally loses his balance, falling on steps, uneven terrain, or sometimes just walking through the house. On most days, my father’s world doesn’t extend beyond the bedroom, the bathroom, and his well-worn recliner in the living room.

But this story isn’t about my father. It’s about my stepmother and how my dad’s high level of dependence has significantly restricted her world as well. Living in this tiny microcosm that typically includes only her and my dad, my stepmother isn’t able go out to dinner or movies with friends like she used to. Gone are the days of being on nonprofit boards and volunteering, travelling and shopping for hours. She can’t even go to medical appointments without my dad in tow. In fact, she’s put a knee replacement off for years because she can’t figure out how she’d manage.

In essence, my stepmom believes caring for my dad is more important than caring for herself. And she’s hardly alone. Caregivers, including partners and grown children, are less likely than others to sleep and eat well, exercise and go to the doctor. This lack of self-care can have dire outcomes.

In fact, the study “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” found that 23 percent of caregivers had experienced health issues while they were caring for a loved one. Sometimes it’s a physical illness; often it’s depression and anxiety. At the very least, caregiving can sap your energy and eventually lead to total burnout. And at that stage, you’re of little value to anyone, least of all the person you’re caring for.

The solution seems pretty simple … get help. However, those two words are much easier said (especially by those who are not caregivers) than done – by those who are caregivers. If you’re a caregiver and have had difficulty sharing the burden, below are some strategies that might help you get the assistance and downtime you need.

Tips for accepting help as an element of self-care

Change your mindset

If you’re like most caregivers, you probably think you should be able to do it all yourself. Therefore, accepting help may feel like weakness or failure. Having others pitch in with caring for your loved one also means relinquishing control and trusting that someone else can care for your loved one as well as you can. You also probably don’t want to be an imposition.

The first step is getting over those feelings. You can’t do it all … nor should you!

Make a list

How many times has someone asked, “How can I help?” You may not be able to think of anything they can do, especially if you’re exhausted and overwhelmed at that moment. That’s why you should always be ready with a list of tasks that people could – without much explanation – take off your plate to give you a little break.

Maybe a neighbor could cook a meal a week for you, or a family member could drive your loved one to a routine doctor’s appointment. Grocery shopping, yardwork, cleaning, and home or car maintenance are all chores that can help lighten your load and give you time back for yourself.

Be direct

senior couple at home, from Weedezign. Caregiving is a challenging task, thus the need for self-care while caregiving – including a need for accepting help.

Don’t beat around the bush when you ask for help. For example, you might say, “Would you consider staying with Mom while I get a haircut? No problem if you can’t!” Hedging your request makes it seem trivial, even though you’ve probably been fretting about needing a haircut seemingly forever! Instead, try a more direct approach: “I have a haircut scheduled on Friday. Would you stay with Mom from 10:30 to noon?”

This sort of request doesn’t lessen the need you’ve expressed. It also makes it harder for the friend or family member to flat-out refuse, unless they can’t make the scheduled time. And if that’s the case, most people will throw out other times that they are available.

Turn over the responsibility

If you’re still having trouble asking for help, Beth Cole, a certified independent dementia consultant with Cole Caring Consulting, suggests letting someone else do the asking for you! Maybe your sister can call some neighbors who have offered to help, or your adult kids can email people and set up a meal train or visiting schedule for your loved one.

Not only can it be easier for someone who isn’t directly involved to do the asking, it distances you, the caregiver, from feeling selfish for soliciting help, much less accepting help. You’re definitely not being selfish, but when people are stressed, they’re more likely to embrace unwarranted negative feelings!

Create a schedule

Once you’ve enlisted some friends and family who are willing to lend a hand, make a calendar of chores that need to be done on a regular basis and schedule helpers who have offered to do them. Try not to ask the same people repeatedly in a short space of time. Don’t forget to include regular once-a-week or once-a-month (whatever interval works for you) moments of Zen for yourself, such as meeting up with friends, golf, or tennis games or just sitting in the park with a good book. That way, you don’t put off “your time.”

If you can’t find a “parent-sitter” so you can leave the house, invite a few friends over for lunch or a glass of wine or carve out a few minutes a day to do yoga, work a crossword or Wordle, meditate, or embrace some other activity that recharges your batteries. Pick a time when your loved one typically is napping, watching a favorite TV show, or at least needs less attention. While you won’t be getting away physically and will still be close if your loved one needs you, the mental getaway can be so beneficial.

Give care, receive care, embrace self-care

It’s difficult to keep giving care when you’re not getting anything on the other end for yourself. An empty tank will leave you and your loved one stranded. Caregiving is a selfless task and being a little “selfish,” including by accepting help, is the only way you’ll have the strength to keep performing it. You and your loved one both will reap the benefits.

More from the series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging”:

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over 10 years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones