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Caring for the caregiver: The ultimate guide to maintaining your physical and emotional well-being

By Christina Joseph

Two years into my father’s recovery from bypass surgery complications, my mother surprised me with a one-week vacation to Paris. I’d never been and always dreamed about it, yet I couldn’t help feeling guilty for leaving my ailing dad behind. But my mom knew I needed a break. 

For the better part of my dad’s sickness, if he wasn’t confined to a hospital room, he was living with me. In addition to working a full-time job, I arranged doctor visits, maintained medication lists, handled his finances, cooked for him, and constantly fretted over his physical and mental well-being, sometimes to the detriment of my own. 

Giving more attention to the health of your loved one than yourself is a common occurrence for caregivers, who make up 16% of Americans. Logistically, it makes sense: Caregivers spend an average of 20 hours a week tending to loved ones. “To be the best caretaker for your loved one, you’ve got to give yourself permission to take care of yourself,” explains Andy Lee, Aetna’s chief mindfulness officer, who spent years as a caregiver to his wife.

Here are some steps you can take to preserve your well-being so you can be present for the ones who need you most.

Plan ahead and get organized.

Before you begin your caregiving duties, it helps to get organized. Decide what tasks you can take on yourself or divide among willing family members. And identify what additional resources you’ll need, especially if you’re handling everything alone. Having a concrete plan in place can give you a sense of calm, especially when new issues arise.

Check with your community, home health agencies and insurance plan to see what resources are available. If you’re an Aetna member, your plan may include the Resources For Living program, which provides you and members of your household with 24/7 access to emotional support and daily life assistance at no additional cost.

If you’re also caring for your own children and an aging family member, read on for more tips about how to balance it all.

Ask for help.

Caregiving can be physically and emotionally exhausting, and you may feel the desire to take on everything yourself. Trying to be a superhero could lead to burnout, and that’s not good for anyone. Experts recommend accepting offers of help, and giving those eager to lend a hand some ideas about how to help. You may find that removing just one item off your list can make all the difference when you’re feeling overwhelmed. "It’s helpful to spread the wealth,” says Shara Sosa, a Virginia-based oncology therapist and cancer survivor. “Remember that [caring for a loved one] is a marathon, not a sprint."

Asking for help is especially important if your loved one has a chronic condition, like cancer. Learn practical and emotional tips about how to support a loved one with cancer.

Establish your own emotional support system.

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions as a caregiver, including sadness, guilt, frustration and anger. Find a support group or someone you trust who can relate. Not only can you compare tips and resources, you also have someone else to lean on for emotional support. If you’re reluctant to share your thoughts, find other ways to express yourself, such as journaling or painting.

However, there may be times when you’ll need to seek professional help. Stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions are common among caregivers. The Family Caregiving Alliance reports that 40 to 70 percent of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. Learn more about signs of depression and anxiety.

If you’re experiencing any signs of caregiver distress, such as anger, social withdrawal or depression, talk with someone you trust or a mental health professional. Many Aetna members, for instance, have access to Behavioral Health Televideo Services, which allows people to access help from counselors remotely.

Find time to socialize and relax.

Caring for someone can feel isolating at times. Remember it’s OK to give yourself permission to do the things that you enjoy. You can also find activities to do with your care recipient that don’t revolve around caregiving. Those small moments can raise your spirits and bring the two of you closer together. 

Though it may be hard, try to relax. Reducing stress and anxiety gives you more energy and mental capacity to handle the tasks of caregiving. Get a massage or try some deep breathing, visualization or meditation to help clear your mind.

Need to stay close to home? Walk around the block or read a book for pleasure. Even small actions like chewing gum or drinking tea have been shown to reduce stress and improve focus. Check out more tips to reduce stress in 10 minutes.

Maintain your physical well-being.

The physical demands of caring for another adult can also take their toll. About 1 in 10 caregivers say their physical health has declined since taking on the role. Caregivers have a higher risk of developing physical ailments, from acid reflux and headaches to more serious, chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

Exercising can help. Start small by walking with a friend or signing up for a class at your local gym. If you can’t leave the house, do some gentle stretches or jog up and down the stairs (you’re probably doing it anyway, so just add a few more trips).

Not only will being active improve your health, it can also boost your mood. Studies show people who exercise at least two to three times a week experience significantly less depression, anger and stress than those who work out less frequently or not at all. Learn more about the mental health benefits of exercise.

Eat healthy food.

It’s easy to forget to eat healthy when you’re constantly on duty. But without proper nutrition, you’ll feel sluggish or hyperactive. Eating a diet of nutritious food at regular intervals leads to a healthy level of energy with fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook and an improved ability to focus, says Dr. Gabriela Cora, a board-certified psychiatrist, plant-based nutrition certified physician, and medical director for Aetna Behavioral Health. In fact, studies show that a healthy diet can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Find out which foods are good for your mood.

If you’re pressed for time, assemble individual servings of nutritious food, such as almonds or cheese and crackers. Prepare several days of meals at once, and leave fresh fruit on the table to make it easier to grab and go.

Get plenty of rest.

You can’t care for someone else effectively if you’re tired. Find a bedtime routine that works for you so you can recharge for the next day. Experts recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Here are a few steps you can take to rest well: Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. Run a warm bath for yourself or read a book. And dim the lights and limit electronic devices late at night because artificial lights can confuse your internal clock. See our sleep guide for more tips.

Self-care is an essential part of ensuring you’ll be there for those who need you most. When I returned from Paris, I was well-rested, upbeat and ready to resume my duties as a caregiver. My dad felt better, too. He knew things were difficult for both of us, and seeing me smile made him happy.

About the author

Christina Joseph Robinson is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.

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