THE BLOG
08/02/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Putting the 'I' in Caregiving

Like most kids growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I played a lot of sports. After school. On weekends. In the rain. In the snow. Even in the dark. Over nearly 20 years of playing organized sports, I must have had at least 10 coaches tell my teammates and me, "There is no 'I' in the word team." To succeed, they'd say, always put yourself second and the team first.

Well, this may work for baseball, basketball and football players, but I'm here to tell you that it does not work for family caregivers. Family caregivers need to learn to put the "I" in caregiving -- and keep it there!

As a family caregiver, it's so easy to put your needs on hold. And who can blame you? Look how busy you are. Every place you turn, you're faced with responsibilities and time pressures. And it seems everyone -- your spouse, children, friends, your employer and co-workers, volunteer organizations and, most especially, the loved one in your care -- is depending on you.

Sound familiar?

According to the National Family Caregivers Association, there are more than 65 million family caregivers in the United States who, in some way, deal with similar problems and feelings. The selfless responsibilities that family caregivers take on not only make a positive difference in the life of a loved one but also greatly contribute to our country's economy.

Yes, our economy!

In 2009, AARP estimated that the dollar value for the services that family caregivers provide for free is a staggering $450 billion annually (see also www.healthcarefinancenews.com). This was nearly the same as all the spending on Medicare, which was $480 billion, as stated by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

Every day you are working hard to help your loved one, family and even your government, so isn't it time that you make sure that you help yourself?

You really should.

The health of the family caregiver is a national concern. That's easy enough to understand when you delve into research conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving. In both "Caregiving in The U.S," a study conducted in 2009, and "Study of Caregivers in Decline," a report done in 2006, the findings clearly indicate that the health of family caregivers is deteriorating as a result of their caregiving responsibilities conflicting with their own health needs. The conditions most commonly associated with this dilemma include: stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation, memory problems, immune deficiencies, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and depression.

There's no doubt that by being a family caregiver, there's a good chance that you are experiencing at least one of these problems. In fact, as reported by the National Alliance for Caregiving, family caregivers are nearly twice as likely to experience poor health versus people of the same age who do not have caregiving responsibilities.

Over the last 10 years, I have spoken to thousands of family caregivers all across our country. And there is one thing that stands out, no matter if the caregiver was helping a spouse, parent, child, sibling or friend, or whether that caregiver was faced with a life-threatening condition or a long-term health concern. Family caregivers put taking care of their own physical and emotional well-being last.

OK, stop rolling your eyes. I understand the demands on you and your time. And I know you'll always be able to find a reason not to focus on your own needs.

But there are some behaviors that you can change today that will make a big difference in your family caregiving experience. I guarantee it!

Just try these five things:

Don't be shy... ask for help from family and friends.

Don't feel guilty... schedule personal time each week.

Don't isolate yourself... stay in touch with your friends.

Don't be alone... find a family caregiver support group.

Don't be conflicted... make your well being the top priority.

At my company, Caring Today, our philosophy is summed up in one statement: Help Yourself. Help Others.

Please remember these words and do not feel guilty about sticking to the order of these priorities for one simple reason... you deserve it!

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.