As an unpaid family caregiver of an aging or sick relative, you devote much of your time to the well-being of your mom, dad, grandparent or other loved one. But who takes care of you?
“It’s so easy to lose yourself in caregiving and very hard to find the time to care for yourself,” says Kathleen Yanik, communications manager with Area Agency on Aging 1-B, a nonprofit that provides services, programs and supports to help older adults and family caregivers in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties in southeast Michigan. “This is especially true for mental health, and it’s part of our culture to power through.”
Even though it may seem difficult to find the time and energy, self-care — especially for your mental health — is critically important so that you can continue to provide care for your loved one. “We find that family caregivers don’t always think of themselves as caregivers. They’re just helping mom and don’t consider they need help themselves. Caregiving can be a joyful and rewarding experience, but it can also be taxing and people do need to pay attention to their own mental well-being so they can be there for their loved one,” Yanik says.
Caring for others means caring for yourself, too
In her role as a facilitator for an evidence-based workshop called Powerful Tools for Caregivers and presented by AAA 1-B, Janet Hart spends six weeks empowering family caregivers with tools to better care for their loved ones — specifically by paying attention to their own well-being.
“In the first session, we talk about how the class is designed for you, the caregiver. We talk about how reducing the stress of caregiving means you can provide better care,” Hart explains. “This includes all the principles of self-care, including stopping to think about what you need. Providing care for others’ immediate needs means caregivers put themselves on the back burner, so we talk about taking responsibility for your well-being and getting your own needs met, too.”
To stay mentally healthy, caregivers can learn to have realistic expectations by focusing on what they can do and recognizing what they can’t change, Hart says. And, perhaps not surprisingly, stress is a big topic of conversation in the workshop, too. “We try to identify sources of stress, and then we create an action plan each week. Not an action plan about what we will do for someone else, but what we will do for ourselves each week,” she says. This might be reading one chapter of a book for pleasure or taking a nap rather than doing dishes and scrubbing the bathroom while their loved one sleeps, she says.
Effective decision-making and communicating as a family can also be helpful skills that can reduce the stress of caregiving. “We learn communication techniques and how to deal with hard communication situations. How can you find common ground with someone you might disagree with and prevent yourself from becoming defensive? We role-play and practice all the communication techniques,” Hart explains.
Reclaiming your own time is critical
Staying connected socially to friends can help caregivers retain a sense of their own identity, says Yanik. “When friends want to get together, don’t pass. Try to find the time. If you are having a hard time engaging, let friends know why and ask them to keep reaching out. These social connections are valuable. They bolster us and keep us afloat during difficult times,” she says. “Caregiver isolation is a very big thing.”
Learning to recognize depression that may require help from a professional is key for a caregiver’s mental health, so Hart encourages those who experience symptoms — a loss of interest in anything that typically brings pleasure, pervasive sadness that affects all aspects of life, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, feelings of exhaustion, decreased concentration or inability to make a decision, a lack of confidence or self-esteem — that persist for a couple of weeks or more to see their health care professional for help.
Resources to help the caregiver
- Information and assistance: Area Agency on Aging phone line, 800-852-7795, available Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
- Caregiver education: Powerful Tools for Caregivers classes and half-day workshops on caregiving topics. Offered virtually.
- Care in the home: government-funded programs that offer respite for caregivers and direct care to eligible individuals.
- Adult day programs and volunteer caregiver programs.