With America’s senior population living longer, it’s more likely than ever that some of us will serve as caregivers for an elderly parent, relative, or neighbor. For most of us, that means carving time out of already hectic schedules. Almost 60% of caregivers are juggling their volunteer responsibilities with the demands of a paying job. It’s no surprise that 2 out of 3 caregiving people report high levels of stress and worry at some point in their experience.
Warning signs of stress overload can include feeling overwhelmed, or in a constant state of worry; feeling unusually tired; sleeping too much, or too little; feeling predominantly sad, frustrated, or angry; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed; and gaining or losing a lot of weight. If any of these sounds familiar, you’re not alone – and there are meaningful steps you can take to lighten your load. Here are some effective ways to cope that we’ve learned from the families in our communities:
- Put yourself first: You’ve heard flight attendants speak of placing your own oxygen mask on before helping others; caregiving operates on the same principle. You’re no good to anyone without proper sleep and nutrition – so prioritize eating well and, if your nighttime sleep is interrupted, schedule a nap during the day. Exercise can seem like a luxury when every minute of the day seems accounted for – but that’s when you most likely need it the most in terms of both physical and mental health. So even if you have to get coverage in order to work out, do it.
- Stay in touch with family and friends. The demands of caregiving can feel isolating, which can add to feeling discouraged and even depressed. Schedule coffee with a friend, or a walk with a neighbor – even 30 minutes a few times a week will help you feel more connected and grounded.
- Ask for help. This can be a tough one, particularly since caregivers are often more naturally on the providing end of things. But delegating tasks are actually vital to being able to provide for others for a longer period of time, without getting burned out. If it’s your dad you’re caring for, identify family members and close friends whom you can call upon for help with discreet tasks. Then consider widening the circle to include your dad’s friends and neighbors – and make sure to check out local community organizations like a nearby senior center, or dad’s parish community. You may feel reluctant to ask for help at first, but you’d be surprised to discover how many people are willing to lend a hand.
- Set realistic goals. Just as no parent can be perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect caregiver. Make task lists, reexamine priorities, and let go for now of some non-essential things you’ve always done – like hosting a holiday dinner, or baking for a favorite fundraiser.
- Investigate options for family leave. If you’re a paid employee, your organization may offer some form of leave for caregivers that would allow you to take paid time off for an extended period.
- Reach out to other caregivers. While friends and family can be supportive, sometimes it’s more helpful to commiserate with people walking in your shoes. The Alzheimer’s Association has a network of support groups across the country; they also host online message boards and a 24/7 help line. The AARP also offers occasional online chats for caregivers, hosted by eldercare experts who take questions and offer valuable coping strategies.