Nancy Lebrun is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and writes frequently on health and wellness.
When you are a caregiver, every day can bring a torrent of needs, requests and demands. No matter how much you love someone, caregiving can leave you angry and exhausted. It’s a job few people train for or anticipate.
While caregiving can also be a source of satisfaction and purpose, depression among caregivers is well-documented, especially among people who lack support and resources. “The biggest obstacle to getting help is that someone who is feeling depressed will tend to see only the negative side of things, rather than the good that can come out of a break,” says Dr. Steve Zarit, head of the department of human development and family studies at Penn State.
If you are a caregiver who’s wondering where your own life went – here are some suggestions to find the help you need and deserve.
Give yourself a breather
When you aren’t feeling your best, you can’t do your best. If a haircut or massage would be restorative, ask a friend or family member to cover your responsibilities for a few hours. Or make plans with friends to meet for a regular outing, whether it’s for a cup of coffee or dinner and a movie.
If you’re melting down, look into respite programs, which provide relief care on an overnight or ongoing basis. Familiarize yourself with the services many communities offer, or use an agency or referral service to get information. You can also look into what’s available through Medicare, which covers respite care when your loved one has a life-threatening illness. Keep in mind that in today’s connected world, you are only a text or call away if you’re needed.
Offload the guilt
Dealing with guilt feelings is a major hurdle for many caregivers. Disliking a responsibility doesn’t mean you don’t love someone. There’s no need to beat yourself up about having negative feelings toward the duties you’ve taken on. If your loved one can be difficult and “guilt-trips” you, be aware that you may not be able to control their actions, but you can change your reaction to the feelings they can trigger. Be realistic about how much you can do. You’re human.
Find emotional support
Caregiving can be isolating and lonely. If family and friends don’t seem to understand what you’re going through and cannot or will not help, support groups and mental health professionals can be lifelines when you are feeling overwhelmed. Take steps to locate qualified people who know what you are going through and be there for you. Even if you’ve never considered therapy or other kinds of emotional support, it’s never too late to reach out.
Exercise and eat well
Don’t underestimate the power of a walk or a workout. All the talk about the psychological benefits of exercise is based on solid research. If your caregiving duties are intensive, get someone to step in for you a few hours a week, or hire outside help if finances allow. If a major workout or a run is not for you, consider stretching class, yoga or tai chi.
Diet is as important as exercise when it comes to maintaining good health, which you need to meet your caregiving responsibilities. Now is as good a time as any to revamp the way you eat if it’s less than nutritious. You know what’s healthy and what isn’t, so go for it, and minimize eating on the run or finding solace in food.
It’s not weakness, it’s not selfish, and it’s not failure to feel down and need help. “The most important thing caregivers can do when they are feeling depressed or angry – or to prevent depression – is to get help with the care,“ says Zarit. “It can be help from family, friends or paid sources such as in-home care or adult day services, which helps both people–the caregiver and care receiver.” There’s nothing wrong with taking time for yourself; it can help replenish your reserves of patience and energy. Consider becoming your own caregiver for a little while – everyone will benefit.
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