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Practical Caregiving

Looking in the Caregiver Mirror to Take Better Care of Yourself

By Jean Donahue

Are you frustrated, stressed, depressed, short of time, short of money? Does each day seem to go on forever with not sign of a break in the future? These are issues the family caregiver faces -- until they learn how to manage their own lives as well as those they are caring for. There are ways for you, the family caregiver, to improve your own life without neglecting your loved one.

In general, family caregivers tend to ignore their own needs. Taking care of their loved one is paramount in their mind, and they feel their needs come second. They don't get the exercise they need (which I didn't do). They don't eat healthy foods on a regular basis. They don't take a break. They feel they are the only one who can fulfill their loved one's physical and/or emotional needs. This pressure and stress leads to depression, then things seem to get worse.

What can you do to improve this situation?

Let's start by confronting a basic problem that causes many problems -- caregiver guilt. You, the family caregiver, don't want to be in the caregiving role you are in, but you love the one you are taking care of. You want to help them. You can't make the situation go away, and you know things are only going to get worse. Then, on top of that, you feel guilty about feeling that way.

You need to change your attitude. You are only human. You are not perfect. You want life to go back to the way it was before these health problems happened, but it won't. These are all normal feelings that absolutely every family caregiver feels. Don't think you are bad because you feel that way. It is normal. First, you need to realize that you can't do everything for your loved one, and then you must find other ways to get everything done. You also need to find ways to take care of yourself. If you do, you will be a better caregiver to your loved one.

The first thing you should do is to start taking breaks during each day. Take at least 15 minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening. When you eat, take 30 minutes, if possible. When you take your break, don't think about what you need to do next. Find something relaxing to think about. It might be listening to music, reading a book, writing a letter, drawing a picture, knitting, whatever.

In short, find something to take your mind off caregiving.

Next find a way to get completely away from the caregiving occasionally. You can get away for an hour, afternoon or longer, but find a way to get away. Ask for help from other family members, friends, churches. Hire someone to come in if you need to, but find a way to get away.

For some people, that's the hard part -- asking for help. When you are asking, remember that everyone needs help sometimes. If you haven't helped that person in the past, there will come a time when you can do something for them. Asking for help does not mean that you are not doing a good job of taking care of your loved one. It means that you want to make sure your loved one is taken care of well. You simply cannot do everything. You are human. We all are.

There are organizations that offer respite care. Call the social worker at your local hospital and ask about respite care. Also, ask them if they know of anything else that might help you.

Get the exercise you need. If you just sit and don't exercise, your body will start complaining and things will start going wrong. Don't do that to yourself! Exercise doesn't have to be the high impact type of exercise. Tai Chi, stretching, walking in place, and other gentle exercises are excellent.

Of course, make sure you eat healthy foods. You don't want to gain a lot of weight. I did and I am still trying to get rid of it. And it is taking forever!

Also, be sure to get enough sleep. I realize there will be times when you can't, but overall, get the sleep you need.

Make sure you get the healthcare you need, as well. Remember, if your health gets bad, you won't be able to take care of your loved one -- and you won't be able to do much else.

Stay in touch with friends. The telephone and internet are wonderful ways to keep in touch when you can't get out a lot.

If you aren't sure exactly what you and your loved one needs, please check my column, Knowing What You Need Is the First Step In Getting What You Need,

Your caregiving role is not only to take care of your loved one, but to take care of yourself. You will be able to take better care of your loved one if you take care of yourself also. You both will benefit -- and that's the key!