Caring for an ill parent, spouse, or other loved one can be a demanding and debilitating task. Aging populations and shorter hospital stays mean more of us are filling this role. In the U.S., nearly 66 million people -- or one in three adults -- provide care to a family member who is ill, disabled or aged.
This is a real shift for many of us as we find ourselves caring for the people who once cared for us. While it is a gift to be there for our loved ones, it more often than not takes a toll on us -- physically, financially, emotionally and spiritually.
In an article in USA Today, personal finance writer Nanci Hellmich notes: "An online survey of 1,345 visitors to Caring.com, reported that a third of family caregivers spend over $10K a year on extra-expenses." And it's not just money, it's time. Roughly a third of family caregivers spend more than 30 hours a week on caregiving tasks.
With already too many things on our plates, caregivers often sacrifice their own needs to devote their time to caregiving. Reading a good book, exercising at the gym, preparing a nutritious meal, meeting an old friend for coffee... these are the events that become expendable in the face of care.
The Family Caretakers Alliance reports:
"Evidence shows that most caregivers are ill-prepared for their role and provide care with little or no support, yet more than one-third of caregivers continue to provide intense care to others while suffering from poor health themselves. Studies have shown that an influential factor in a caregiver's decision to place an impaired relative in a long-term care facility is the family caregiver's own physical health."
Taking care of ourselves -- body, mind and spirit -- is essential. And yet it's often difficult to know where to begin.
When forced to juggle your own needs with those of your loved one, you may feel alone and isolated, and that your closely-held beliefs and values are being challenged. However, there are things you can do on a daily basis to maintain your own health and quality of life, and avoid burnout. Here are some that I recommend:
Delegate some tasks to others whenever possible, such as grocery shopping.
Manage your time as efficiently as possible; use a calendar or appointment book.
Make time for yourself and keep up your own interests.
Take advantage of available resources, available through the Internet, local and national organizations, houses of worship, etc.
Join a support group for family caregivers; it's helpful to share experiences with others walking in similar shoes.
Talk about your feelings with your family and friends and/or counselor.
Maintain open communication with the health care professionals who are caring for your loved one.
Learn about your loved one's illness; take notes and keep records.
Do things that give you a sense of calm and peace, such as spiritual exercises like prayer and meditation.
If you are a long-distance family caregiver, establish relationships you can count on so that you are not constantly worrying. AARP has some tips here:
Explore EmblemHealth's Care for the Family Caregiver program: http://www.emblemhealth.com/careforthefamilycaregiver
Chat with a chaplain on ChaplainsOnHand.org. Through this new service introduced by HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, the public can connect with a board-chaplain via phone (844-CHAPLAIN) or email. You may also submit a prayer request.
As caregivers, we can often feel lonely, stressed and overwhelmed. It's my hope that you surround yourself with the resources you need to care for yourself -- spiritually, physically, emotionally, financially and intellectually. Caregivers have a very difficult job and your self-care is not selfish. It's necessary to carry you and your loved ones through this journey.