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  • Gregory McCarthy

The Importance of Self-Care for Caregivers

-Laura Kiniry

When it comes to caring for others, one of the hardest things to do is finding (or creating) the time and space to care for ourselves as well. Self-care is a main component of providing home healthcare, though it's one that's also easily overlooked. One of the best ways to assist another person, however, is by looking after our own needs first. It's just as flight attendants are constantly reminding us: that we must put on our own oxygen masks first before helping others. This is a move that's not only necessary but smart, and one that can go a long way toward preventing burnout, resentment, and stress.

Honor Care Pro Jessica DePriest has a lifetime of home healthcare experience, including caring for an older sister who lived with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a hereditary degenerative nerve disease that causes degeneration of peripheral nerves. She knows firsthand the toll that home healthcare giving can have on individual caretakers. DePriest typically works in 12-hour shifts and sees just how draining paying bills, cooking meals, changing bedpans, and simply “being there” can be. This goes for professional caregivers as well as family members who are looking after loved ones, and/or trying to work together to provide the best care and support for their mother, father, sibling, or spouse.

“You have all of these different personalities each with their own ways of handling things,” DePriest says. “And when it's a loved one you're caring for, this adds a whole extra layer of intensity. It can really take things out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

DePriest says feelings may be especially heightened during COVID, when maintaining social distancing and limiting personal interactions requires caregivers to take on duties, like preparing dinners or taking phone calls, that they may have previously shared with others. “It's easy to get overwhelmed,” she says, “so you have to figure out ways to be gentle, both with your client or loved one(s), and with yourself.”

Remember, self-care isn't selfish. It's essential.

Here are our recommendations for engaging in self-care:

Do Something for Yourself

Whether it's meditating for 10 minutes each morning, taking time out once a week for a massage, or spending an hour or two each evening pursuing a personal hobby, like watercolor painting or journaling, scheduling in time to do something you find relaxing can make a world of difference. If you're athletic or outdoorsy, go for a run or a bicycle ride, or return to your senses with a bit of forest bathing. “Find situations where you can just be and let things go in the moment,” DePriest says. What's most important is that you're taking time for yourself.

Eat Well and Get a Good Night's Sleep

Often when we're caring for others, eating healthy and getting enough sleep are the first things to go out the window. Don't let this be the case. Be sure and toss some fruits and vegetables into the shopping cart for yourself, prepare well-balanced meals in lieu of frozen foods or take-out, and try and stay on a regular sleep schedule. When we eat well and aren't sleep-deprived, we feel a lot better about ourselves and the world at large. In fact, a proper night's sleep goes a long way toward increased energy, better productivity, and reading social cues, all which are hallmarks of caregiving.

Take Little Breaks Throughout the Day

For both professional and at-home caregivers, taking little moments for yourself can help relieve stress and reset any heavy emotions. Quick relief activities like going for a short walk, indulging in a piece of dark chocolate, or looking at a favorite photo can help you stay “calm, productive, and focused,” according to DePriest also recommends stepping outside for a few minutes, or even sitting in your car and shedding a few tears (according to Medical News Today, the benefits of crying include stress relief, mood enhancement, and better sleep). “You can even turn your car stereo up all the way and then just breathe out everything that you've had to deal with, before going back inside,” she says. “Any type of healthy outlet is good.”

Talk About Your Experience with Others

One critical component of self-care, says DePriest, is realizing that you're not alone. “It's perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed when you're caring for someone,” she says. “But remember, there are plenty of people out there who have gone through or are going through something similar.” DePriest finds support from the Facebook page of a friend whose mother has dementia (“Just her vulnerability and the fact that she's so transparent is amazing,” she says), though there are dozens of in-person and online support groups available, including private Facebook groups like Caring for Elderly Parents and the Dementia Caregivers Support Group, both which are open to new members. AARP also provides tips on where to look for support, including how to find the right support group for your needs, and where to look for meal delivery and transportation services.

Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Knowledge is Power

Knowing and understanding the symptoms, effects, and overall details (including individual medications) of your loved one's or client's condition is a form of personal caregiving you may not have considered, DePriest says, but one that can go a long way toward empathy and your own peace-of-mind. “It's really important to research what it is they're dealing with,” she says, whether it's osteoporosis and heart-disease or dementia and a dislocated shoulder. “By doing so,” says DePriest, “you'll have a better idea of whether they're reacting appropriately to their medications, or say, require some extra hydration.” Having a baseline of what to expect can help relieve your own stress, as well as that of your loved one or client.

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