In today’s society, family caregivers account for about 29% of the population in the United States, or greater than 65 million people. Additionally, there are approximately 1.4 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 providing care for a loved one.
This means that a little less than one third of the population spend an average of 20 hours per week caring for an elderly, a chronically ill, or a disabled family member; putting the needs and demands of their loved one(s) above their own. These saints of the world are sometimes the only people for the job, and the only ones their beloved family members can depend on. Talk about high-pressure work. Clearly being a family caregiver does not come without its stressors. So what are the costs of being so selfless?
According to statistics, 40-70% of family caregivers display signs of depression that are “clinically significant” and about a quarter to half of this same group meets the diagnostic criteria for major depression.
However, mental health isn’t the only thing that is affected in caretakers. Physical health also seems to take a back seat. Almost three quarters of family caregivers report seeing doctors less often than they feel they should. Also, 63% state having poor eating habits, and 58% describe worsening exercise habits than before they were caregivers.
The deterioration of mental and physical health for these caretakers is a cause for serious concern. If you can’t take care of yourself, who can you take care of? Here are some recommended tips that might enable family caregivers to better de-stress throughout the day and week:
You support your family, but who supports you?
Accepting and/or reaching out for help and resources are essential for a caregiver’s sanity. Spending a large portion of your day and week being at someone else’s disposal means your needs get pushed aside. Surround yourself with friends, family, coworkers, pets, anyone who will provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on if need be. We all need to vent and have a good laugh at times. Make sure you have your own support system – they’ll come in handy after a tough day.
Lead a healthy lifestyle.
Diet and exercise seem to be a universal remedy for so much more than family caregiver stress. Maybe it’s because incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and exercise in our daily routines have proven to regulate our systems, promote better sleep, and provide increased energy and alertness throughout the day. This doesn’t mean you need to replace green smoothies and quinoa in lieu of everything delicious like potatoes and bacon. Nor does it mean 6am workouts five days a week. Start small. Have a side salad with that burger. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Integrating some activity and healthier food choices, no matter how small, will have a lasting effect on your mental and physical functioning. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.
Practice relaxation techniques.
One of the most trendy relaxation techniques these days seems to be meditation. This “mind and body practice” has gotten a lot of attention by researchers. Although many studies are still underway, some published results show that mindful meditation may ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even reduce insomnia. Meditation may bring to mind a vision of sitting cross-legged, humming, and incense burning in the background (at least that is what used to come to my mind). The reality is that meditation can be whatever you want it to be. The essential elements involve finding a quiet space, being in a comfortable position, and maintaining your focus on breathing, a specific word, phrase, feeling, or object while being open-minded. It could be in your parked car at a Wal-Mart or lying down on your bed. The point is to revel in the relaxation and focus your mind on a single thing for a set period of time, refusing to let distractions enter your brain.
Get in touch with your spiritual side.
Whether you believe in God or not, discovering what you believe in and where you place your faith may help you realize your purpose and connect you to deeper meaning in life. Spirituality can be key to relieving symptoms of depression by providing hope, and can even help prevent depression. Spirituality also allows for reflection, may help caregiver’s cope with stress, and may allow them to find clarity and meaning in their responsibilities. Examples of putting spiritual health in action can include talking with a chaplain, attending church or small group, reading religious texts, praying, or even taking a walk in nature.
The common denominator for all these tips is this: Find time each day to do something for YOU. And I don’t mean the things you have to do such as showering, or eating… although those activites are great. I mean something that brings you joy and peace; that illuminates your soul, calms your mind, and satiates your heart. Make a delicious and nutritious meal. Take a walk in the park and find a quiet spot to meditate. Call up a friend on the way home and talk about your day, or talk about anything else.
Whether you volunteered, were assigned, or were the last resort, undertaking this often thankless job is incredibly admirable and selfless. Nonetheless, don’t forget that the key to providing the best care for your loved one, starts with caring for yourself.
Caregiver Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://caregiveraction.org/resources/caregiver-statistics#Impact on Family Caregiver’s Health
Five Benefits of Exercise and Nutrition. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/five-benefits-exercise-nutrition-4274.html
Mann, D., & Marcellin, L. (2014, May 28). 6 Ways Spirituality Can Make You Healthier. Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://www.everydayhealth.com/pictures/ways- spirituality-can-make-you-healthier/
Meditation: In Depth | NCCIH. (2007, December). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers. (2012). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from https://www.caregiver.org/taking-care-you-self-care-family-caregivers