9 kind things every caregiver should do … for themselves

Caregiving can feel like a 25-hour-a-day job, but even the Energizer bunny needs to recharge sometimes. Sneak these nine little moments of self-love into your day.

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It’s a phrase you’ll hear on every airplane you board, but it’s a message that bears repeating: you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help out anyone else. The same principle applies for the growing number of people who are finding themselves in the position of caring for their aging parents.

An estimated 44 million adult Americans provide unpaid support to older adults who are ill or disabled. With the tremendous demands of taking care of their parents’ health needs on top of dealing with their own families’ day-to-day routine, many helpers are overwhelmed and exhausted. Coupled with feelings of guilt, sadness and sometimes resentment over having to take on so many added responsibilities, caretakers’ physical and mental health can suffer under the weight of mounting obligations.

That’s why it is crucial that caregivers take steps to take care of themselves. Here are some tips from experts who’ve been there.

Give one of your to-dos away

It’s tempting to not want to burden others with your problems, but remember that nobody can do it alone. Nobody! And a good friend likes to have your back when times are tough (it’s probably one of the reasons she’s part of your friend tribe in the first place). So ask for help—and be specific. First, make a list of tasks that you need to get done this week, and star the ones that can easily be performed by others. Then pick just one to farm out to a friend. For example, maybe a friend who lives close by can pick up a few items for your dinner while she’s at the grocery store anyway, or she could bring you some take-out from that place you both love. Having someone else do just one errand for you can make a world of difference in your day. And when your friend sees the relief and gratitude on your face, that will be payment enough for her good deed.

Read a good book

Your brain needs a break. A real break, not just a Netflix session while you also catch up on emails. Find a way to unplug: whether it’s prayer, meditation, or just reading a chapter of a good book every other day, a moment without screens or demands is crucial to recharging your batteries. Let your mind wander away from reality, away from your to-do list. Stefania Shaffer, author of “9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent” says reading books helped lift her spirits when she was taking care of her ailing mother. And a happy, rested caregiver is so much better at caring. “Escapism through literature for me provided a lot of solace,” said Shaffer. “Being nearby in the house just down the hall, I felt like I could get away, even on the days I could not leave.”

Exercise for 10 minutes

The added burdens of taking care of someone else can lead to a higher incidence of depression. Exercising for just 10 minutes a day will improve your physical health, energy levels and mental health as well. “A change of scenery will do you good and the boost of endorphins will increase your positivity and release some of that pent-up tension,” said Kathryn Vigness, a wellness coach who became a caregiver to her mother when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Take a tip from Queen Latifah

Actress and singer Queen Latifah, who has been recently spending time taking care of her mother after she was diagnosed with heart failure, said the experience has been a wake-up call to take care of her own health. “I learned I had to get myself together,” said Latifah of the experience. “And I had to kind of, you know, be aware of my own life.” So in the midst of going to the doctor and keeping track of medications for your ailing loved one, be sure to put your own doctor’s appointments on the list, too. It’s often easy to brush off your own mild tooth ache or cough when you’re thinking about “bigger things” but those little ailments will slow you down on a day to day basis, and can even snowball into bigger ailments that could make you unable to take care of anyone.

Seek out other “Sandwich Generation” adults

Every day more people join the ranks of the so-called “Sandwich Generation“—people who are caring for elderly family members while also raising their own young kids. But luckily, support groups can provide a wealth of information and helpful ideas for how to juggle it all. Because the more people who have “been there,” the more caregiver advice there is to go around. But in addition to tips and tricks, finding another caregiver to talk to can help you vent your frustrations in a healthy way (not snapping at your mother when she doesn’t want to eat the meal you cooked for dinner). Both The Family Caregiving Alliance and and the AARP have online resource pages where caregivers can find local or online support groups to connect with others in the same situation. Don’t be shy, use them.

Treat yourself

Make time for small luxuries that will help you feel pampered and cared for. It doesn’t have to be big, and it doesn’t have to take more than an hour, but you do need to carve out a tiny bit of me-time. So go out for a coffee, get a pedicure and read a magazine, see a funny movie or have lunch out with a friend. Find opportunities for whatever activity will lift your spirits and take you away from your routine.

Add a nap to your itinerary

Seriously. Caregiving is exhausting and you need to take naps when you can. The laundry can wait. And if it really, really can’t? You can grab 45 minutes of shut eye while you’re waiting for the dryer to ding. It’s important to get little recharging moments each day. Plus, when you start looking for ideal nap times in your day, we bet you’ll start finding at least a few 15–30 minute chunks here and there. And that’s a good thing! Author Stefania Shaffer said she took advantage of her mother’s downtime to get some much-needed rest and relaxation for herself. “My mother was a big believer in naps and I was exhausted a lot,” she said. “Whenever I needed to lie down, even if it was for 30 minutes, it did a world of good to me.”

Eat right

Well-meaning friends, family and neighbors may think they are helping you by dropping off all sorts of high-calorie goodies like cakes and cookies. But loading up on unhealthy food is anything but helpful for you—or your patient’s—health. Instead, ask friends to bring nutritious meals that you can freeze and heat up in the future. Take advantage of healthy options like food-delivery services or prepared foods from local supermarkets for days when you don’t have time to cook. Your body will thank you in the long run.

Remember the big picture

Taking a moment to think about your values and why you’ve chosen to be a caregiver can help give you perspective when the daily routine seems like it’s too much to handle. “Sometimes it helps to think, ‘How will I feel five years from now?’” said Dr. Julia Mayer, clinical psychologist and co-author of “Meditations for Caregivers.” “You will probably think that even though it was exhausting and challenging I was glad that I did it.”

Dr. Mayer recommends that caregivers practice mindfulness exercises at least once a day to try to combat stressful feelings. Finding a few minutes every day to focus on your breathing and quiet your mind, whether it is during a walk or in a peaceful space in your home, can be very effective. “When you focus your mind, you can calm it,” she said.

Catherine Kauder
Catherine Kauder
Catherine Kauder is a freelance writer who has worked for ABCNews.com, TheStreet.com and Dow Jones Newswires. Her writing has appeared in Glamour, Ladies Home Journal and The Wall Street Journal. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.

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