What did you want to be when you grew up? An author, an astronaut, an architect, an actor? Whatever life you dreamed of for yourself, you probably never imagined the possibility of juggling your personal and professional life while also being a caregiver for someone who is living with medical challenges.
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Whether you’re moving an aging parent into your home, taking care of a partner who has cancer or managing any other scenario in which you’re caring for a loved one with health needs, one thing remains true: Caregiving can be incredibly stressful.
“Being able to care and support for someone you love can be rewarding in so many ways,” says oncology social worker Christa Poole, LISW-S, OSW-C. “But caregivers often assume their caregiving role in addition to the many other responsibilities they’re managing. This can feel overwhelming and lead to burnout, especially in the absence of help or a support system.”
A 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that nearly 53 million Americans are providing unpaid care to an adult with medical or functional needs — and 21% of those caregivers report their own health as “fair to poor.”
“People in caregiving roles are often so focused on giving and on providing support to others that they may put their own needs on the back burner,” Poole says.
And you might not even realize you’re doing it. Oftentimes, you’re simply so focused on fulfilling the needs of others that you forget to do the same for yourself. Signs of caregiver stress, burnout or distress include:
Self-care is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for caregivers, who don’t always carve out the space to tend to their own needs.
But don’t confuse self-care for self-indulgence. It’s far from selfish to take much-needed time for yourself. In fact, Poole stresses that it’s a critical part of your mental, physical and emotional health — and even your ability to provide the best care and support.
“Self-care will help allow you to continue in the various roles, including being a caregiver, that bring joy and rewards to your life,” she says.
Here are tips for caring for your own well-being while dealing with the inherent stress of caregiving:
It can be hard to accept help, even when you know you need it. But just as you’re caring for someone you love, don’t underestimate how willing other people are to help you when you need it. Sometimes, they just need you to say so.
“When you’re overwhelmed, you may assume that other people will know and recognize what you need in terms of help and support,” Poole says, “but it’s not realistic to expect others to know what we need and how to help us.”
Instead, be mindful of what tasks you may be able to outsource — and then, practice asking for help. Could your friend next door walk your child to the bus stop along with their own? Could your sister pick up groceries for you while she’s out running errands?
“It’s important to share with others what you’re feeling and to be specific about ways you need help,” Poole advises. “When possible, enlist help from a few people and give them choices of ways they can help. Offer options and avoid assigning too many tasks to one individual.”
And practice saying “yes” to other people’s offers, too. If your coworker loves cooking and offers to drop off dinner one night, try to see it as their way of expressing love. Instead of responding with, “Oh, no, I couldn’t accept that,” try simply saying, “We would be so grateful for that! Would Tuesday work for you?”
“Caregiving can feel isolating and be a lonely place when it falls on one person,” Poole recognizes. “Consider what community resources might be available, especially if your support system is limited.”
That may include:
Local care management services can often help you find and connect with professionals in fields like transportation, counseling, meals and more.
You know what they tell you on airplanes: In case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help others. The same is true when you’re acting as a caregiver: You need to care for yourself in order to effectively care for others.
“Take time for your own needs,” Poole encourages. Here’s how:
In-person and virtual support groups connect you with other people who are facing similar challenges in caregiving. They can help you feel less alone and more understood — and that’s just for starters.
“Support groups can provide education on specific topics relevant to caregiving and offer you the opportunity to learn from other caregivers to help you cope,” Poole says.
Not sure where to start? Try asking your doctor or even the doctor of the person for whom you provide care, if you accompany them to appointments. If your loved one has a specific condition, for example, Alzheimer’s disease or breast cancer, look for organizations dedicated to that condition — they may provide information about support groups for caregivers.
When you’re a caregiver, it can feel nearly impossible to set boundaries for yourself. After all, you love the person you’re caring for, and you want the best for them — but setting boundaries helps you do what’s best for you, too.
“Setting limits is a way to practice self-care,” Poole affirms. Learn to say no and build up your mental strength (also known as emotional resilience) so you can feel more comfortable asserting your boundaries, limitations and needs.
You don’t have to do it alone, even though it may feel like it. “Caring for someone you love involves feeling and emotion,” Poole says. “It can be helpful to talk with a social worker or therapist about your hope and fears.”
If you’ve never been to a therapist before and are feeling nervous about the prospect, delve into the basics of therapy, including where to start and what to expect.
What if caregiving is literally your full-time job? Self-care is just as important for people in professional caregiving roles, who may feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of their work. That’s called empathy fatigue, and it’s common in the healthcare field.
“Over time, neglecting self-care related to our roles as professional caregivers leads to burnout and impacts our relationships with others,” Poole warns. “In addition to the tips we’ve already discussed, professional caregivers should look into resources offered by their employers.” Many companies provide support and offer services to promote self-care in the workplace.
You can also reach out to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is available to anyone experiencing mental health concerns, including stress and burnout. Call or text 988 from anywhere in the U.S.
Being a caregiver is difficult, important work, whether you’re doing it for a loved one or as a profession. Whatever the case, it’s important that you make time for yourself and treat yourself with gentle care to prevent burnout.
In short, Poole encourages, “Be kind and patient with yourself. Self-care supports your overall well-being.”