Caregivers: Protect Your Own Health, Too
How to soothe stress, reduce your risk for depression and sleep better while caring for a loved one
If you’ve cared for a loved one on a regular basis, you know it can be stressful and isolating. Researchers say it also can lead to weight gain, depression and burnout. So you may find it hard to believe that it can also be good for your health. But a growing stack of research says that’s the case.
When Johns Hopkins University researchers compared the health of 7,106 caregivers and non-caregivers, they discovered that caregivers lived, on average, nine months longer than those who were not tending to a loved one on a regular basis. While 17 percent did feel stressed-out, caregivers also got a profound emotional boost from the gratitude and recognition expressed by the people they cared for, report the researchers. Caregiving is deeply meaningful, notes caregiver advocate Yusaif August, author of “Coaching for Caregivers” and co-author of “Help Me to Heal.”
Meaningful or not, caregiving can still be exhausting. “Taking care of your own well-being — physically, emotionally and spiritually — is vital,” August says. “It’s tempting to put off your own needs, but that doesn’t serve you or your loved one. You have to practice some positive selfishness.”
These tips can help.
1. Ask for what you need. Caregivers who stayed in touch with (and got help from) family and friends felt more satisfied with their lives and coped better with stress than those who felt isolated, according to a New York University study of 200 people caring for a spouse with dementia. But loved ones who criticize, ignore or don’t help out can trigger more stress for caregivers, says a Northwestern University study of 58 people taking care of stroke survivors.
Start by asking for help in small, very specific ways, August suggests. “Maybe you need someone to pick up the dry cleaning or drive your daughter or granddaughter to soccer practice,” he says. “One-time tasks that take a short amount of time won’t overwhelm people who want to help, are easy to ask for and can really help you feel less stressed and overwhelmed.”
Also think about what you don’t need. “You can set boundaries by telling friends or family members who are critical or who bring stress in other ways that you know they care about you, but you just don’t want advice or suggestions right now. And that you’ll ask when you do,” says August.
2. Take a stand against isolation. Isolation can lead to depression, magnify stress and even worsen health conditions you may have, such as diabetes and heart disease, if the isolation leads to weight gain.
Research shows that finding “me time” helps caregivers reduce their blood pressure and depression. Break the cycle by pinpointing times of day when your loved one is sleeping or in good spirits and needs little care, then ask a friend or family member to sit with them so you can go out. Or enroll your loved one in an adult daycare in your community to give you time to tend to your social life.
3. Get emotional support. Spend time in person or on the phone with a friend or relative who doesn’t mind listening to you vent your feelings. Reconnect with your faith community, or consider joining an online or in-person support group for caregivers.
4. Take care of yourself. Follow a healthy diet and try to fit in exercise, even just walking, when you can. Keep up with medical tests and check-ups and getting your annual flu shot. In one national survey, 75 percent of caregivers who were in fair to poor health didn’t keep up with doctor appointments for themselves. Get help from your doctor right away if you notice signs of depression such as:
- not enjoying activities you once loved
- a big change in your sleep or appetite
- feelings of fatigue, hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
5. Soothe your stress. Learning a relaxation technique such as mindfulness meditation can ease depression and brighten your outlook, according to a new Northwestern University study of people caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. The simplest stress-buster of all takes just a few seconds. “Take a moment to stop and breathe,” August suggests. “This gives you a chance to connect with yourself, see how you’re feeling and to reduce stress. Try it several times a day.”