4 Self-Care Tips for Today’s Caregiver

Caregiving doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health.

My caregiving responsibilities came full-force when I, a still wet behind the ears twenty-two year old, welcomed home my combat soldier turned disabled veteran back from Afghanistan. Like most military spouses, I’d envisioned our homecoming being a little more Hollywood-esque — not living out of a hospital. While my peers were having babies, buying their first homes, and landing their dreams job, I remained on 24/7 suicide watch, along with (attempting) to navigate the hornet’s nest of bureaucracy also known as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Somewhere amidst the medical meets military jargon of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), burn pit registries, and disability ratings, my sense of self rapidly dissipated.

Like millions of family caregivers across the world, my loved one’s care repeatedly came at the expense of my own. Fairly bright (I had half of my doctorate’s degree completed before my spouse was injured), I recognized the toll that picking up the pieces of war was taking on my body — Caregiver Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Secondary PTSD are just a few of the medical labels I found stamped on my hand, as I passed through yet another gate of the caregiving carnival.

Exhaustion had moved from a temporary guest to a permanent resident, and the toll of continued stress, accompanied by multiple deaths of veterans within our tight-knit community, began to show on my once-healthy, distance runner’s body. Self-care, as the slew of social workers assigned to my family’s case discussed, was something I could no longer afford to live without.

Caregiver conversations about self-care generally include things such as: bubble baths, meditation, hot stone massages, and working out. While these relaxation and wellness strategies can certainly help the overwhelmed caregiver to re-center and recharge, what happens when your home includes only a handicapped shower, and you can’t afford to pay (much less tip) a masseuse? What about self-care options that last longer than a half an hour, and don’t require you to schedule home health or respite care for your loved one? What about long-term solutions to a life-long responsibility that can empower caregivers to embrace life in a more balanced dimension?

Here are four self-care strategies that have helped me regain balance within my caregiving journey:

Prioritize Your Healthcare

For decades the medical community has recognized caregiving as a risk factor for increased mortality.

Caregivers of all generations are often faced with caring for their loved ones, at the expense of their own health, often due to lack of resources and support. Months to years of living in a constant state of worry and exhaustion takes its toll, regardless of how “healthy” or “young” the caregiver was pre-caregiving. Few body systems appear to be immune of the negative health effects of caregiving, with National Alliance for Caregiving noting sleep, stress, pain, depression, and headaches topping the list of most-frequent health effects today’s caregivers experience.

While lack of time, energy, and financial resources are cited as the most common reasons today’s caregivers neglect their own medical care, several programs exist to help caregivers get the medical care they need. If you’re a caregiver forced to neglect your own medical needs in lieu of a loved ones, check out the National Respite Network for respite providers and the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics for free or low-cost medical care within your community.

Find a Life Source

By the time I was twenty-eight years old, I’d attended more military funerals that baby showers and weddings combined.

Getting front row seats to the longest war in American history isn’t exactly how I’d envisioned spending my twenties. My youthful world of excitement and hope had been sucked dry by the cloud of loss that had reconfigured my very-millennial paradigm. The shadow of death that encircled our veteran community appeared relentless, “transferring” dozens of our patriotic friends and loved ones to military hospitals and cemeteries.

Like many caregivers providing care in response to traumatic events or caring for terminal patients, my world quickly became a dark, dismal place that no amount of “relaxing” was going to undo. Instead, I had to find some “life source”– projects and organizations that inspired me smile again — to help put some color back into my post-war, death-dominated world. I volunteered with a nonprofit board, connected with other caregivers online, and began a photography project that forced me to find some sort of “life” — be it a budding tulip, or an anxious squirrel — within my normal course of day.

Finding activities that brighten your world is an essential part of any self-care activity; just because you’re surrounded by loss doesn’t mean you have to give-up on living.

Share Your Story

With isolation as frequent stressor today’s caregivers face, sharing one’s story can be a wonderful way to connect with others, while advocating for the caregiving community

Don’t worry, sharing your story doesn’t have to translate into standing in Time’s Square, shouting out what it’s like to have a loved one’s life hang in the balance; instead, you can start small, by joining a caregiver support group or by journaling.

As you become more and more comfortable communicating your caring path, publishing aspects of this unique season in life via digital means of blogging, social media, or writing can be a phenomenal channel to connect with others and champion the cause of the unpaid caregiver. Several caregiver organizations — AARP® , Family Caregiver Alliance, and the Caregiver Action Network — collect and publish caregiver stories; consider reaching out to these organizations with the intent of sharing your caring journey.

Don’t Give-up on Your Dreams

Ask any caregiver: caregiving (most likely) wasn’t their “dream” job”; it’s a job born out of necessity and (typically) very unfortunate circumstance.

Just because chronic illness, tragic accidents, traumatic events, and/or terminal prognosis ripped through the caregiver’s familial fabric, doesn’t mean their dreams dissipated right along with it. All caregivers had things they wanted to do — things they were going to do — before donning the cumbersome caregiving hat.

Living through life “interruptions”, as Vietnam Veteran and former U.S. Senator Max Cleland so poignantly described in his memoir Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove, doesn’t mean caregivers have to give up on their dreams.

While the timelines and processes may have to modified to accommodate for interrupted lives, today’s family caregivers can follow their dreams, while providing care for their loved one. Utilize available resources such as caregiver organizations, technology, and respite care to help turn your dreams, while caregiving, into reality.

Conclusion

Over 40 million Americans provide largely uncompensated caregiving services for disabled loved ones, a selfless act with an economic value of over $470 billion a year.

Such unsupported caregiving is noted as causing emotional, financial, and physical strain on the caregivers themselves, and while such findings are widely distributed, many aspects of our society fails to provide much-needed support for this growing demographic. Today’s caregivers find themselves alone through many aspects of their caring journey, an isolating and taxing experience that has the potential to wreak havoc on all aspects of life.

By practicing self-care, including, but not limited to prioritizing medical needs, enriching activities, sharing their story, and pursuing their dreams, today’s caregivers can help alleviate some the long-term stress effects of caring.

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