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5 Ways for Caregivers to Care for Themselves – and Avoid Burning Out

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By Amy Goyer

As caregivers, we all know we need to take care of ourselves so we can care for others. I liken it to our cars: We don’t expect them to run on empty, so why do we expect ourselves to? 

The challenge is finding the time to fill our own tanks so we have energy to help others. While periodic longer breaks from caregiving are important, we don’t get those very often. So we need a variety of ways to fill our own tanks whether we have a few minutes or a few hours. 

How caregivers can care for themselves

Try these quick ways to fill your tank throughout every day. 

1. Monitor Your Mindset: When tension builds or you feel overwhelmed, sad, exhausted, angry or resentful, use these techniques to adjust your mind:

  • Attitude: Examine whether you are acting from a place of fatigue, fear and defeat or love, joy and hope. Be gentle with yourself and others. Create and notice the joys in every day. Everything you do is a choice, so choose a loving, positive perspective. You can’t control all aspects of this experience, but you can control your attitude about it. Resiliency is success.
  • Goals: Consciously create three realistic goals each day. Both bigger accomplishments, like finding a new doctor, and basic goals like getting your loved one out of bed and dressed. It doesn’t matter how big or small, if you consciously set and accomplish three goals every day you’ll feel more confident and successful. 
  • Mindfulness: Multi-tasking can be mentally exhausting and you’ll often accomplish more if you are mindful and focus on one thing or person at a time. Gently bring your mind back to the present moment and whatever you are currently doing—even if it changes every thirty seconds. 
  • Meditate: Find a variety of ways to meditate. You can using guided meditation apps, or doing your own walking meditation by counting each step one through ten, or, if you’re not really one for meditating, try simply pausing throughout the day and focus on taking five deep breaths. 

2. Get Rest: When we are chronically stressed and in “go” mode our adrenals get depleted and our body needs rest. Sleeping hours are often the first thing we sacrifice when caregiving. Try these ways to let your body rest.

  • Schedule sleep: Literally put it on your calendar and protect that time. When you plan your day view those hours as untouchable. And always try to sleep when your loved one is sleeping, if you’re on duty with them.
  • Free up time: If it’s difficult to find direct care help for your loved ones, get family and friends to help you with your life, like errands, household chores, paperwork etc. 
  • Give up the night shift: If those you are caring for are awake a lot at night, ask a family member or pay someone to be with them at least once a week so you can sleep deeply.

3. Nurture Yourself with Healthy Nutrition: We all turn to comfort food when we are under stress, but try to balance that with healthier options; your body deserves quality fuel.

  • Water: One of the primary causes of fatigue is mild dehydration. We focus on our loved ones and forget our own fluids. Fill a large cup or bottle with hot or cool water every morning and sip on it throughout the day. I like to add lemon, lime or a chunk of fresh ginger for flavor.
  • Meal delivery: Try a meal delivery service that sends you fresh prepared meals or ingredients to make your own healthy meals a few days per week. Or ask a friend or family member to bring you a meal once a week.
  • Plan meals and snacks: Take 15 minutes to plan healthy meals and snacks for the week. We all make better choices when we are prepared and not grabbing the most convenient food. And try cooking one day and freezing meals for the rest of the week.
  • Slow Cooker: Take advantage of your slow cooker to prepare a meal in the morning so you don’t worry about meal preparation throughout the day as you are caregiving. 

4. Move Your Body: As you engage in caregiving tasks throughout the day, build in strength, stretching and aerobic exercise.

  • Use the wait: Caregiving involves a lot of waiting — do a few jumping jacks, squats or stretches. 
  • Exercise together: With your loved ones — take walks, dance, toss a ball, lift hand weights or use exercise bands while watching TV. Go to exercise or swim classes or watch a seated yoga or a Tai Chi video with them so you both improve your balance and flexibility.
  • Shorten your workout: Alternate short spurts of full-out effort with slower movement on a mini-trampoline, treadmill or exercise bike whenever you get a 10-minute break.

5. Connect with Others: Isolation is all too common among caregivers and it puts us at risk for both mental and physical health problems. Find quick ways to connect.

  • Social media and texting: Take 3-minute breaks to catch up with friends – long enough to connect but not so long to detract from caregiving responsibilities. 
  • Support groups: Go to an in-person caregiver support group meeting or find an online community or group you can connect with any time 24/7.
  • Get out: Take those you are caring for out for lunch, a cup of coffee or a class. Volunteer (doing something other than caregiving), attend your faith community services, go to a concert, make a little time for a hobby that nurtures your soul.

Above all, make a conscious decision to care for yourself while caring for others. It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. It’s not selfish; it’s practical. 

Amy Goyer is a caregiving expert with over 35 years of experience advocating for and caring for older adults. She has also been a family caregiver her entire adult life and is currently caregiving for her 93-year-old father who has Alzheimer's and lives with her. She is a paid spokesperson for the HEALTHY ESSENTIALS® Program.

©Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. 2017

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