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Updated: September 18, 2023

An exhausting task: Self-care is vital when caring for others

Stock Illustration / VectorMine

Many people have experienced the feeling that everything at work will fall apart if they take a little time off. 

For caregivers responsible for the well-being of their loved ones or those of other people, time away may especially feel like an unaffordable luxury.  

Taking a break or engaging in an activity designed to bring personal joy or fulfillment often comes with a sense of guilt. Caregivers may even find it hard to prioritize basic needs such as exercise, medical care or eating.

It’s hard to enjoy regular get-togethers with friends, attending church, shopping, sleeping, reading or taking in a movie when these worthwhile activities come with a dose of guilt or shame.

But without a breather or a little self-care, a caregiver can run the risk of harming their own physical and mental health, leading to depression or anxiety, which can affect their ability to adequately help those for whom they are caring.

“Caregiving is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting,” says Dr. Cliff Singer, chief of the Center for Geriatric Cognitive and Mental Health and director of the Mood and Memory Clinic at Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor. “A person whose personal resilience is depleted won’t be as effective in giving the dependent person what they need in each of those three spheres. So caregivers need to recognize and respect their own limits when they are approaching the breaking point.”

A caregiver’s burden doesn’t just affect one area of life; the sustained stress can affect other responsibilities as well as relationships. Caregiving can be a drag on time, personal development, physical health, social engagement and emotional well-being. 

“You have to put your own oxygen mask on first – the same applies when you’re caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s,” says Amy Angelo, program manager of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Maine chapter. “You will only have the patience and energy you need by taking care of yourself, otherwise you could be short-tempered, forgetful, and you wouldn’t be showing up for the person in the best way you possibly could.”

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of a respite to the person for whom you are caring. There is a good chance they need a break as much as you do.

Dr. Marc Kaplan of Saco-based nonprofit Sweetser.

“A caregiver needs to feel able to put aside any feelings of shame or guilt in seeking out some respite,” says Dr. Marc Kaplan, medical director at Saco-based behavioral health nonprofit Sweetser. “Many friends and family members will say, ‘Please let me know if I can help in any way,’ and it’s up to the caregiver to actually take them up on it.”

Creating care anywhere

Here are some ways for caregivers to physically and mentally cope with the stress of their responsibilities:

Plot a getaway

Taking time away from caregiving is actually important to providing quality care for others.

According to the AARP’s Prepare to Care Guide, “Stress can negatively affect your health, well-being and ability to provide care. Schedule regular time for what is important to you and get help from others.”

Even an hour away for lunch or time with friends and family can be helpful.

Think physical first

It is vitally important to make sure you are attending to your own physical needs. An estimated 70% of caregivers experience a decline in their own health. The downturn is often exacerbated by poor diet, lack of exercise and poor sleep.

Seek help

Caregivers have a tendency to wait too long to ask for help. Many caregivers do not recognize the stress they are under, so it is a good idea to listen to others when they offer help or express concern.

Nearly half of caregivers do not seek any help, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Not only can a support group connect a caregiver with like-minded people experiencing similar challenges, the meetings also offer a break from the day-to-day tasks that become commonplace.

Regular meetings with a therapist or counselor can also be beneficial.

Know your ‘rights’

It is OK to get upset as a caregiver. You might even feel depressed from time to time.

These feelings aren’t unusual. In fact, negative emotions are an expected part of caregiving, as spelled out in author Jo Horne’s Caregiver Bill of Rights in her 1985 book, “Caregiving: Helping an Aging Loved One.”

“I have the right to … get angry, be depressed, and express other difficult feelings occasionally,” it reads.

Respite for ME

In 2022, Maine launched the Respite for ME program, which offers grants to family caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. These $2,000 grants, funded by the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, allow family caregivers to access respite care as well as other services not covered by existing programs. More information is available at the state Department of Health and Human Services website.

Sources: Southern Maine Agency on Aging; AARP; National Institute on Aging; Family Caregiver Alliance; Alzheimer’s Association; American Heart Association

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