In a 2021 study, AARP found that 1 in 5 adults in the US serve as unpaid caregivers for loved ones. Most caregivers have suddenly found themselves in the role without real expectations of becoming a caregiver or what becoming a caregiver really entails. Studies have found that up to 70% of these caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. Caregivers often neglect themselves and end up with worsening health as they care for their loved ones. Tragically, 30% of caregivers predecease the one for whom they are providing care.
What do these statistics tell us? First, that caregivers need to take time for their own wellness, and second, that caregivers need to look to the future. Both are easier said than done when you are actively caregiving and trying to balance other responsibilities. Here are some suggestions on how to address these two issues.
Recognize joy in little things
As you are awakened at dawn by someone who needs you, pause to acknowledge that the sunrise is beautiful. Take the time to laugh. A ten-minute walk is better than no walk at all- take in the fresh air, grass and trees.
Pay attention to your own health
It is easy to lose track of doctor’s visits or medication refills for yourself. Following a special diet can be overwhelming when you are caring for others. Making time for this type of wellness is extremely important. Many offices now offer virtual visits, which could make seeing the doctor easier. Remember, though, if you’re not well, your loved one can’t be either.
Reach out to friends
Many caregivers lose contact with friends because time is limited and those who aren’t caregiving don’t understand. Make a point to chat with friends who do understand. This may mean a scheduled weekly phone call, a set coffee date, or even a support group – either in person or virtual. Social interaction is important to your health and wellness.
Accept and ask for help.
No one will do what you do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t accept offers of help for even little things. It is common for people to say things like, “His brother said he’d come and stay with him, but he doesn’t even know what that would mean.” No one else will learn what caregiving for your loved one means if you don’t give them a chance, even for an hour. Often the offers of help stop coming as your caregiving time lengthens. Ask for help, even with small things. You can also utilize grocery delivery or laundry service or whatever little service can make a big difference.
Look to the future.
Often in the work of caregiving, you lose sight of what the next steps will be for yourself and your loved one. This doesn’t mean you don’t worry about the future for your loved one, but caregivers often are too overwhelmed and do not plan for it. Consulting a professional about the future can open up doors we didn’t know existed, or that we are too burned out to see. Have a Geriatric Care Manager or a nurse assess your situation and make recommendations. What if you go to the hospital- what is the plan for your loved one? Does your loved one have long-term care insurance? Is it time to do the paperwork to get the benefit started? If your loved one needs to move into residential care, where would they best fit in? What is the cost? Working with a professional can make this planning much more manageable.
Plan for your future.
Caregivers are often the spouse or partner of the person needing care. Because caregivers are so focused on doing what is best for their loved one, they don’t plan ahead for their own future needs. Sometimes, all financial resources are spent on the care of the one with no plan for the other. Caregivers also never think of a time when they themselves will need help.
Taking the time to care for yourself as the caregiver can help to make you a better caregiver in the long run. Help is always there when needed, so be sure to utilize the resources that are available to help both you and your loved ones.