Every caregiver knows the feeling of coming home at the end of the day entirely burned out. Maybe you sit down on the kitchen floor and eat cold cereal directly from the box for dinner or maybe you simply get into the shower and cry from exhaustion and stress. While these reactions aren’t uncommon, they also aren’t entirely healthy. While there’s no doubt that caregiving is a stressful and emotionally demanding job and that some strife is unavoidable, there’s also no doubt that one of the most important things caregivers can do is care for themselves.
When a caregiver burns out as a result of improper or inadequate self-care, he or she has nothing left to give to clients. This results in poor client care and a risk of missing important warning signs. Additionally, burnt-out caregivers are at a high risk of becoming resentful of their jobs and leaving this all-important field altogether.
Fortunately, caregivers who focus on providing themselves with positive self-care can continue to serve clients well for many years to come.
Self-Care 101: Four Reasons Caregivers Need to Tend to Themselves
While it’s critically important for caregivers to be aware of the importance of self-care, the concept is a foreign one to most people in the helping professions. Typically, caregivers are incredibly dedicated to their clients and it’s very easy to push through the days without giving much thought to the state of one’s own body or mind. Unfortunately, this inevitably ends in disaster for the caregiver. Here are the four main reasons self-care is so critically important for caregivers:
1. Caregiving is a health risk.
Study after study has proven that caregiving puts a person’s personal health at risk. More than 60% of caregivers suffer from some level of clinical depression, a large majority take prescription medications for anxiety disorders, and most caregivers are incredibly reluctant to slow down or get help.
2. Most caregivers are caregivers at home and at work.
75% of all caregivers in the U.S. are women who also have families and spouses of their own to support. Some caregivers are adults taking care of aging parents and some are adults who also tend to adult children in need of extra assistance.
3. Caregiving is a source of intense stress.
Hard days, late nights, and early mornings all add up to create a stressful environment for the caregiver. Unfortunately, stress is a factor in the majority of serious diseases and, left unchecked, stress has the potential to have a grave negative impact on a caregiver’s life.
4. It’s impossible to be a good caregiver without self-care.
You’ve likely heard the saying “You can’t give anyone water if the well is dry” and there is no profession in which this is truer than caregiving. In order to be a quality caregiver day in and day out, it’s important to ensure that the well of emotional and mental health is full on a daily basis
Filling the Well: Six Things Caregivers can do to Ensure Self-Care
1. Seek Support.
Most of us have grown up in a culture that tells us we’re weak if we ask for help. Unfortunately, this is untrue and damaging. Being a caregiver means learning to seek support in whatever way that resonates with you – be it the emotional support of prayer or a church group, the physical support of weekly massages, or the mental support of talking to close friends and family members. There are also dozens of web-based and in-person caregiver support groups around the country that can help caregivers cope with the stress and demands of their jobs in a healthy and productive way. No matter how you choose to seek support, doing so is one of the most important aspects of maintaining your personal health.
2. Allow for comfort.
You take care of other people all day so it’s important to take care of yourself sometimes, too. One of the best ways to do this is to allow ample room each week for something you find comforting. This could be reading a favorite book, watching inspirational videos, cooking and enjoying a favorite meal, or spending time with a loved one. These moments of comfort are incredibly important for replenishing emotional reserves and keeping stress at bay.
3. Address the guilt.
Most caregivers feel a huge amount of guilt at not being able to “fix” everything. This is exacerbated by the fact that most caregivers provide care to people with significant physical or mental difficulties for whom no cure is available. While the care the caregiver provides is important in helping these individuals live quality, dignified lives, it’s often difficult for the caregiver to rectify the fact that they can’t ultimately heal their clients or take the sickness away. Additionally, caregivers may also feel huge amounts of guilt for not being able to be the perfect child, parent, spouse, or employee. Caregivers also feel guilty when they get angry, resentful, or frustrated with clients.
Part of self-care is learning to cope with this guilt in a healthy way. While all caregivers experience some level of guilt, the way it is dealt with has a large impact on mental and emotional health. Many caregivers see a counselor for support while others turn to prayer or religious communities for assistance coping. Reaching out to friends and family members may also be helpful.
4. Set boundaries.
A lack of boundaries is one of the most common reasons caregivers feel strung-out and overworked. While most caregivers give everything they have while on the job, it’s important to be able to set boundaries once the working day is over. While this practice looks different for everyone, common methods include not checking your cell phone or email while at home with the family, keeping work topics at work, designating one day to fully leave your cell phone at home and unplug, or refusing to take on more than you know you can handle. Setting boundaries takes practice but, over time, setting boundaries and knowing your own limits can become two of the most powerful defenses against resentment and burnout.
5. Take care of your body.
It’s impossible to be good at anything or healthy in any way if you’re not taking care of your body. From getting enough sleep and drinking enough water to making space on a daily basis for exercise, physical care is the foundation from which everything else springs. With that in mind, carry a water bottle with you to work and be sure to drink at least two liters each day (a great mental guideline is one liter before breakfast and one before dinner).
Additionally, you should be sure to make space for some form of physical activity on a daily basis, be it a yoga class or a walk with your dog. Make time for regular health checkups and be sure to take a break if you feel yourself getting sick, run down, or excessively exhausted. While this may be difficult to do in the moment, it will pay off in the long run in the form of more resilient health and an increased capacity to cope with the difficulties of the job.
6. Take breaks.
Even if you absolutely love your job as a caregiver, taking breaks is a huge piece of self-care. Allow yourself to take a vacation every year and make time on a regular basis for mini-vacations – either in the form of a day off here and there or a lunch break during which you go outside, sit in the sun, read a book, and don’t take work calls or emails. These things, while they may seem simple, are hugely important for preventing you from becoming overwhelmed and unhappy.
While caregiving is one of the most demanding jobs in the world, it’s also one of the most rewarding. Most caregivers love their jobs and these self-care tips can help ensure that you stay healthy, happy, functional, and helpful for many years to come.