You can’t provide the best care if your tank is empty.
Caregiving can be a difficult role, but ironically, one of the most difficult tasks might be allowing yourself to take a break. You may feel like a little R&R would be “selfish,” or you may worry about how your loved one will fare in your absence, no matter how brief.
“I often hear caregivers say that they feel guilty if they take care of themselves or they take time out for themselves when caring for a loved one with a serious illness,” says Nathan E. Goldstein, MD, palliative care specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
That said, giving yourself a break—regularly—might be one of the most important things you can do as a caregiver for your loved one. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re definitely not going to be able to take care of your loved one,” says Dr. Goldstein.
Overworking yourself could take a toll on your physical and mental health, and the accumulated stress could lead to caregiver burnout. When you feel like you can’t meet the constant demands of caring for someone with a medical condition, you might start to lose interest and motivation in your caregiver role.
It’s recommended to give yourself regular breaks from the get-go (even if you don’t necessarily feel like you “need” one) in order to prevent caregiver stress from building up. “If you’re giving 100 percent all the time, at a certain point, you just may not be able to give as much anymore,” says Dr. Goldstein.
However, if you notice these signs of caregiver burnout, it’s time to take your health seriously and give yourself a well-deserved break:
- Feeling “trapped” or hopeless
- Losing patience or compassion for your loved one
- Overreacting to small accidents
- Resenting or neglecting your loved one
- Withdrawing from your personal hobbies and friendships
- Oversleeping or not sleeping enough
- Overeating, not eating enough, or eating a lot of high-sugar foods
- Having health problems
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Having thoughts of suicide
How to Get Caregiver Breaks
Allowing yourself breaks is an important step, but getting a break is another battle for some caregivers. If your loved one requires constant care, a break requires more logistical planning.
Delegate tasks to loved ones. If possible, ask family and friends to fill in occasionally. Even short breaks—an hour or two—can give you time to squeeze in a yoga class, dentist appointment, or coffee break with a friend. Coordinate a schedule with willing family members to ensure you have regular “me time” throughout the week. Don’t live near family? Try to seek out trustworthy neighbors or volunteers.
Get assistance for everyday tasks. Another way to ease caregiver stress is to hire professionals to clean, do laundry, cook, or run errands. You might find that these are a good investment if they help lighten your heavy load and reduce stress.
Seek professional caregiver help. Professional care services, like adult day centers, are available and can be very helpful for caregivers. These centers provide daytime care so that caregivers can get breaks or even continue their regular employment. Most adult day centers offer exercise and artistic activities in a social environment, and some even offer counseling or physical, occupational, or speech therapy. Alternatively, you can hire in-home health aides or companions, who are trained to work in these situations and can provide a helping hand when you need a break.
If you are in need of a longer break or vacation and it is not possible for a friend or family member to fill in for you, look for respite care options like overnight residential care facilities. These can provide a safe environment that would allow you to enjoy your break without worrying about your loved one.
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I often hear caregivers say that they feel
guilty if they take care of themselves, or
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they take time out for
themselves when caring for
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a loved one with a serious illness.
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And what we try to explain to them is that
actually it's the most important thing
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that you can be doing.
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Because if you don't take care of
yourself, you're definitely not going to
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be able to take care of your
loved one with serious illness.
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Caregiving is exhausting.
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It's a marathon not a sprint.
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And it's a really, really hard uphill
marathon that keeps getting steeper and
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when you're giving 100% all the time,
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at a certain point you just may not
be able to give as much anymore.
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And there can be consequences
to not taking care of yourself.
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Sometimes that we see that caregivers
who find caregiving too stressful and
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don't take care of themselves have
problems with their own health and
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just can't be there to help and
support the patient as much as they could.
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They may forget questions,
they may forget to give medications.
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They may forget things like
scheduling doctors' appointments.
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And so not taking care of yourself can
have serious consequences on the patient,
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as well as on your own long-term health.
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I think there's some very simple things
that caregivers can do to relieve stress
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in their life.
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Making sure that you're
getting a good night's sleep.
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Making sure that you're getting
a walk around the block every day,
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can be incredibly important.
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Making sure that you're eating well.
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Making sure that you're staying
connected with friends and
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family over the course of an illness.
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Making sure that when people say,
how can I help,
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you say there are things
that you can do for me.
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One of the things that
caregivers often say to me is,
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well I didn't want to bother you in
the middle of the night with my questions.
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So I just stayed up all night worrying.
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And what I say is the only thing that
upsets me is when patients' families
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I would much rather you call at 3
o'clock in the morning with what you
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think may be a silly question,
but it's keeping you up.
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Than hearing the next morning that you
were up all night unable to take care of
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We in the healthcare community
understand how hard it is to care for
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your loved one and we're here to help you.
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Even if that means asking questions of us
to make sure that you have the peace of
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mind that you need so
you can be taking care of yourself.
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Adult day centers. Chicago, IL: Alzheimer's Association. (Accessed on November 21, 2018 at https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/care-options/adult-day-centers.)
Caregiving. Chicago, IL: Alzheimer's Association. (Accessed on November 21, 2018 at https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving.)
Respite care. Chicago, IL: Alzheimer's Association. (Accessed on November 21, 2018 at https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/care-options/respite-care.)
Symptoms of caregiver burnout. Washington, DC: ALS Association. (Accessed on November 21, 2018 at http://www.alsa.org/als-care/caregivers/caregivers-month/symptoms-of-caregiver-burnout.html.)
What is caregiver burnout? Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on November 21, 2018 at https://www.heart.org/-/media/data-import/downloadables/pe-abh-what-is-caregiver-burnout-ucm_300657.pdf.)