Nobody tells caregivers how to prepare for what’s to come, not even the doctors or therapists. You can get thrown into this position at any age. I was 32 when I had to care for my father. Work and school schedules were rearranged, including sacrificing my only days off.
People say caregiving for your loved ones is like raising a child. But, instead of growth, there’s the expectation of loss – and actual loss – including loss of self.
It’s the most exhausting time in a person’s life.
Why is caregiving so hard? Because we’re not prepared for it.
But, you can be…with this 9-step survival guide to preventing caregiver burnout:
1. Get familiar with the stages of grieving.
You’re going to lose yourself, so don’t freak out when your body becomes numb. There’s no particular order in which these stages show up (and you’ll have your own version of how it exhibits itself).
• Denial: You may deny that your act of selflessness is a problem, so you keep giving and giving.
• Anger: You’ll easily be triggered. Expect irritability onto others or yourself. You may be upset with the person you’re caregiving for (grudges? burdens?)
• Bargaining: You wish you didn’t take on so much and start reciting “What if…?”, “Why did I…?” This may be directed internally or externally toward someone else (including doctors). You might also experience guilt!
• Depression: Your body will literally go numb. You lose yourself. You won’t know who you are anymore.
• Acceptance: When you realize what is and isn’t in your control and learn to be okay with it. Know that you are always in control of yourself. This is key to #2.
2. Prioritize Your Life.
This IS the time to REEVALUATE your priorities. Caregiving replaces your previous daily routine. Your comfort zone is sacrificed. Step back, and think:
• Can you let go of an obligation that can wait?
• Do you really need to volunteer to be the driver for your child’s team’s soccer game?
• Can you cut out a daily errand?
• What can you cut out that you can replace with nourishing your body?!
3. Give yourself quiet time.
I know you need support, but you also NEED quiet time. Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to relax each day. A hot bath? A solo ice cream outing? Write? Do something creative? Turn off your phone, computer, and TV!
Connect to yourself.
Breathe, and embrace your moment.
4. Don’t be afraid to take a day(s) off from work.
Our culture has been brought up to believe that we can only call in when we are physically sick, but mental health is a big culprit. If it isn’t up to par, then you’re physical body will suffer. You CAN’T NOT AFFORD to take a day off. You need to refuel, period.
5. Ask for help.
You cannot do it all, so don’t think you can. In my North Carolina hometown, the Council on Aging of Henderson County provides resources for caregivers (support groups, Meals on Wheels, financial help, and sitter assistance). Wherever you are, there should be available resources like this, including churches!
Don’t be afraid to reach out.
6. Light Exercise.
Walk. Just walk. You’ll be amazed how this helps your brain decompress. Daily fitness increases your brain’s neurotransmitter, serotonin, which results in happier moods and gets you away from feeling blue. Don’t like walking? Find a light exercise you enjoy and take care of your physical health.
7. Eat healthier.
Yes, it’s convenient to grab fast food (and sometimes comforting), but this can screw with your body chemistry, especially during stressful times, and make matters worse. Maybe adventure into a grocery store salad bar? Try to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Nutrient-dense food improves your metabolism, makes you feel better, and gives you the energy you need to stabilize your mood.
8. Be Social!
When you first start noticing that you’re losing your identity, go back to the fundamentals: Your friends. Just get the Hell out of the house! They’ll help you refocus on what you love in life and help you find balance.
When I thought my life was crumbling away, I realized the little things left were the things holding my life together. It sounds so cheesy, but recognizing what you are thankful for really works… I was even grateful for a freakin’ cold glass of milk and 5 minutes of quiet time.
Prepare yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t lose yourself.