It’s often said that you can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself first.
Though it may seem trite, the saying rings especially true for adults caring for their aging parents. With many people in the “sandwich generation” raising their own children and working full-time in addition to caring for their parents, caregiver burnout is a serious risk.
Experts say caregiver burnout has symptoms similar to depression and can happen when caregivers don’t get the help or support they need.
The case for caregiver respite
That’s why self-care is so important for caregivers to aging parents, says licensed social worker Roberta Hirshon, a geriatric innovation consultant with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor. And more people find themselves caring for aging parents each year.
“The statistics really show that every year our population of age 60-plus is growing by leaps and bounds. And, as people age and live longer, there are chronic health issues that can happen – and oftentimes what we’re finding is that they need people to help them manage,” she says. “The push now is for people to stay in their home and not go to nursing homes, which is awesome, but people need support to be able to do that.”
Caregiver health is key to making those situations work out long-term, says Hirshon, who hosts a support group and workshops to help people tackle the issue of caregiver self-care.
“What we’re trying to help caregivers recognize is that they do have to take time for themselves and get support where they can, because no one person can do it all,” she says. “The word ‘selfish’ has gotten a really bad name. But you need to be selfish. If you don’t take care of yourself first, how are you going to have anything left to take care of someone else? If you’re sick, how are you going to be a good caregiver? It’s really impossible.”
How to make time for self-care
With that in mind, Hirshon offers these 10 tips for helping caregivers find time and support for themselves.
1. Get other family involved
If other family members are in the area or close enough for the occasional visit, allow them to share some of the duties. Even a once-a-month commitment could help.
2. Talk to local agencies
From senior centers and houses of worship to local government entities and non-profits, there’s often more support available than you realize. Hirshon says Jewish Family Services offers many support opportunities, including a care management program and even a new volunteer program that gives 12 hours of free caregiver respite.
3. Join a support group
Find a place where you can connect with others in your situation. Support groups can be found through area hospitals and nonprofits, or even online.
“It’s so important that caregivers communicate with people around them and find other caregivers with whom they can be supported,” Hirshon says. “Get into a group so you can have that contact.”
4. Skill-building helps
Some caregivers can benefit from workshops that focus on skills like communication, which could teach them how to ask for help or how to better advocate for their parent’s needs or their own needs. Many organizations offer these classes for caregivers, but you’ll have to seek them out.
5. Consider friends and neighbors
Being the only family member available to help with an aging parent’s needs doesn’t always mean there’s no one else who could pitch in. Consider trusted friends and neighbors, Hirshon says.
6. Don’t succumb to guilt
“It’s not a crime or a shame” to admit you need a break, she emphasizes. “You haven’t failed if you do need respite.”
7. Know your options
Hiring a professional caregiver doesn’t need to be a full-time commitment. Day programs, drop-in centers and part-time care are all options to consider.
“There are day programs, senior centers – a lot of times people don’t even know where to go, what to do,” she says.
Also look into whether your aging parent’s Medicare Advantage plan might cover caregiving services.
8. Seek out volunteer visitors
If finances prevent hiring a caregiver, ask about “visitor” programs near you that might provide in-home volunteers for small amounts of caregiver respite.
“A volunteer goes to the house and sits with somebody,” Hirshon says of the Jewish Family Services “Friendly Visitors” program. “They can take a break for those couple of hours and go take a shower, go read a book, whatever. I think those kinds of volunteer programs are important.”
9. Plan out your free time
For many caregivers, “free time” usually only comes in the form of an hour or two at night or other small moments during the day. Make those minutes count.
“I really do believe it’s just thinking about the things that bring you joy in your life and finding ways to do that,” she suggests. “If you love to read, for instance, make a date to go read that book and put the laundry and the other things aside. As much as they need to be done, those things will be there. Being able to relax, appreciate life, going out to dinner with a friend or calling somebody on the phone – they’re all so important to our mental health and well-being.”
10. Prioritize your respite
If you don’t ask for it, advocate for it and make it happen, the unfortunate fact is that no one else will.
“Ask for help. You don’t have to be a martyr,” Hirshon says. “It’s hard, hard work. And a lot of times people will say, ‘Well, it was the best thing I ever did,’ which is all true. But it takes a toll if we don’t take care.”