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Self-Care for the Caregiver – Part 1

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On an airplane, an oxygen mask descends in front of you. What do you do? As we all know, the first rule is to put on your own oxygen mask before your assist anyone else. If you are a caregiver, this rule often is the first to fly out the window. Caring for yourself is one of the most important, yet one of the most often forgotten things you can do as a caregiver. It is important because only when we first help ourselves can we effectively help others. Thus, self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity. In this two-part series, Self-Care for the Caregiver, we will explore the important role of the caregiver as well as three important strategies for self-care.

The Role of the Caregiver

The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming. Caregivers are called upon to be an advocate, nurturer, administrative assistant, and coach. You may help feed, dress, and bathe the patient. Caregivers arrange schedules, managing insurance issues, and provide transportation. You are legal assistants, financial managers, and housekeepers. You often have to take over the duties of the person who is ill, and continue to meet other family members’ needs at the same time.

Although challenging, caregiving can be one of the most rewarding, significant roles in a person’s life. Caregivers have a huge influence over how the patient deals with his or her illness. You have the opportunity to help your loved one through a life-altering experience by demonstrating love and commitment, sharing special moments, resolving relationships, and living with integrity with spiritual and cultural beliefs.

The impact on the caregiver can be mental, emotional, physical, and social. If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind – eventually leading to burnout. When you’re burned out, it’s tough to do anything, let alone look after someone else. That’s why taking time for self-care is of paramount importance.

Taking Responsibility for Your Own Care

As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury. But you owe it to yourself – as well as to the person you’re caring for – to carve it into your schedule. There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re not regularly taking time-off to de-stress and recharge your batteries, you’ll end up getting less done in the long run. After a break, you should feel more energetic and focused, so you’ll quickly make up for your relaxation time. Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.

Below is the first of three strategies that you can take to start you on the right track of personal self-care.

Strategy #1: Reduce Personal Stress

Stress can manifest itself in many ways, including irritability, sleep problems, and forgetfulness. The first step is to identify the sources of your stress. For example: too many tasks on your plate, family disagreements, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of personal care. Next, identify what you can, and cannot change. Remember, we can only change ourselves; we cannot change another person. When you try to change things over which you have no control, you will only increase your sense of frustration. Lastly, take action over the things that are within your power and control. For example, delegate responsibilities, identify resources of support, and make time for yourself so you can do something that relaxes you. Here are some practical examples of things that you can try:

  • Take a break from caregiving. You can do this by securing respite care from the hospital, a health care agency, a family member, or a friend.
  • Get help with daily living tasks. Consider ordering your groceries online for delivery, asking a friend to bring dinner by the house, or invest in a cleaning service.
  • Make, and keep your own doctor appointments.
  • Find sources of emotional support, such as talking with a friend, meeting with a therapist, or seeking spiritual guidance.
  • Do something every day that is just for you. This could be as simple as taking a bath, journaling, reading a good book or taking a walk.

For other valuable tools, support, and creative ideas for managing tasks, call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 or visit these sites:

Cancer Survivor’s Network: http://csn.cancer.org

Family Caregiver Alliance: www.caregiver.org

Caregiver Support: www.caregiver.com

Next week, in this two-part series, Self-Care for the Caregiver, you will be introduced to useful communication strategies and effective ways to ask for help.

Image: Vinoth Chandar on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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