November is National Family Caregivers Month. We asked authors and experts in the field for their thoughts on ways people taking care of loved ones can also take care of themselves.
Here’s what they had to say:
“When you are wrapped up in caregiving, it is easy to forget to take care of yourself. Even if you can only take 20 minutes for yourself, it is so important to do something you enjoy — a short walk, reading a book, listening to or playing music, anything you like — every single day. Ideally, it’s good to arrange for a longer break, and plan for someone to take over while you are away. This could be a relative, friend, or paid caregiver. If you live near a college, a responsible student headed for a career in nursing or medicine or eldercare might be inexpensive, responsible help that allows you to take a break for several hours. Do not feel guilty about taking a break for yourself. Resentment, depression, and anxiety are emotional risks for caregivers, and self-care is crucial to preventing burnout and offering patient, loving care to your loved one.”
“A cancer caregiver may feel guilty taking some ‘me’ time. I did. But the best advice I got was: Don’t be a martyr. There are many times when you need to be on call 24/7, but there are also times when you can prevent burn out by doing something that gives you a moment of zen: a bike ride, hanging with friends at a bar, watching a favorite TV show. Caregivers burn out — and finding a way to escape is a great antidote. But don’t forget to ask your spouse or other family member if it’s okay to take a little time off.”
“Role changes can be challenging within relationships when someone is diagnosed with cancer. It is critical to take time out from ‘caregiver’ and ‘patient’ and focus on being a couple or family. This can be as simple as watching a funny movie on the couch and allowing someone else to bring you dinner or do the practical things around the house that need to be done while you take time out. Additionally, although you may have had to pick up more responsibilities while your loved one is in treatment or recovering from treatment, it’s important to stop, sit, and assess your own self-care and needs.
“There is a reason the airlines tell you to first put your own oxygen mask on before putting it on your loved ones — if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. As caregivers, it is easy to often have your own needs overlooked by yourself, as well as your support team, as the focus is often on the loved one diagnosed with cancer. Asking for what you need is not selfish; it is self-care. It is okay to ask someone to come and be with your loved one while you go to the gym or the movies by yourself, or grab lunch with a friend. It is okay to ask someone else to help drive the kids, or bring meals, or do laundry. Both you and the person with cancer can look at household or important tasks that you enjoy doing and keep doing them and consider delegating the things that drain you. You are only as good a caregiver as you are at caring for yourself.”
Dr. Bolte shares the following strategies for taking care of yourself:
- Get support! Seeing a mental health professional can be very important for your well-being. Cancer and the stress of cancer does not only impact the person diagnosed. There are also wonderful professionally led support groups for caregivers and online resources. It is not uncommon for caregivers’ mental and physical health to also be impacted when someone they love is diagnosed. If you find yourself, for example, with a lower mood, worrying more, unable to concentrate, getting angry more often, experiencing sleep disturbances, or trying to avoid conversations, life, or self-care, these might be indicators that talking to your doctor and/or a mental health care professional could be really helpful.
- Do something daily that is just for you — this could be as simple as staying in bed an extra 10 minutes, getting your favorite coffee, going for a long walk, or pausing to watch a YouTube video that makes you laugh.
- Give your brain something else to do. Worry is common when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. So, it is important to give your brain a break from worry. Find things that make you laugh. Make a list of 20 things you can do when worried, such as count the clouds, find a red car, watch a funny video, pet an animal — anything that allows you to pause and distract your brain from the worry so you can reset and refocus. Ground yourself. When you begin to feel anxious, take three slow deep breaths. Controlled breathing can help activate the relaxation response.
- Prioritize where you want to spend your mental and emotional energy. Identifying what’s most important to you and setting small achievable goals can help you feel more in control.