November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize and support the more than 34 million Americans who provide regular unpaid care for an older family member. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week performing caregiving duties, and nearly 1 in 4 caregivers spend more than 41 hours a week caring for a loved one.
Being a caregiver is a full-time job itself, and many family caregivers are taking on these responsibilities in addition to balancing their own work and family duties. While providing care to a loved one can be highly fulfilling and rewarding, it can also be demanding. As a result, many family caregivers tend to neglect their own health and quality of life.
Just as you can’t pour from an empty cup, you can’t give quality care to someone else if you’re not taking proper care of yourself. Without self-care, caregivers risk experiencing burnout—a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
The signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout include:
- Irritability or mood swings
- Low energy
- Fatigue, muscle aches, and joint pain
- “Brain fog” or the inability to concentrate
- Weakened immune system
- Trouble sleeping
Fortunately, caregiver burnout is preventable, and it starts with prioritizing your own health. If you’re a caregiver for an older loved one, here are five ways to stop pouring from an empty cup and start focusing on self-care.
- Get plenty of sleep
We all need sleep, especially when we’re caring for others. Adults require between seven to nine hours of sleep, but some caregivers may have trouble reaching this goal. Taking a brief 30-minute nap during the day can help you feel more rested, however, it won’t replace nighttime sleep. Try to practice good sleep hygiene by sticking to a regular bedtime, turning off electronic devices, and avoiding caffeine before bed.
- Eat healthy foods
When you’re busy taking care of someone else, you might find yourself eating more unhealthy foods or even skipping entire meals. Keep in mind, good nutrition is key to preventing stress and maintaining good health. Be sure you’re eating regular, well-balanced meals throughout the day, in addition to snacks. Because chronic stress can lead to inflammation, cut back on sugary foods and drinks that can increase inflammation in the body. Finally, be sure you’re drinking at least eight glasses of water a day.
- Exercise regularly
Exercise has many physical and mental health benefits for caregivers. When you exercise, your body releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins that lower stress levels and help to boost your mood. Being physically active is also known to prevent depression and anxiety, improve sleep, and lower the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease. Adding exercise to your routine isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as you may think. Pick an activity you enjoy, like gardening, dancing, tennis, or golfing. Joining an exercise class can be another great way to stick to a consistent fitness routine and meet new people.
- Take time to recharge
As a caregiver, taking time for yourself is essential. But all too often, caregivers experience a loss of identity when caring for a loved one. Avoid being consumed by your caregiving role by taking regular breaks to meet with friends and participate in hobbies you enjoy. Reconnecting with the things you love will help you “recharge your batteries” so you can become an even better caregiver.
- Ask for help and support
Perhaps the best way to avoid caregiver burnout is by accepting that you can’t do everything alone. Reach out to people for help and support, whether you go to an in-person support group meeting or chat with other caregivers online. People in your support group or network understand exactly what you’re going through and can give you advice based on their own experiences. Remember, asking for help isn’t something to be ashamed about. Finding the strength and support you need will help you be the best caregiver—and family member—you can be.
If your older loved one needs more help than you can provide at home, it could be time to consider the benefits of an assisted living community. Assisted living communities are designed for older adults who need a little extra assistance with daily tasks such as grooming, dressing, eating, and medication management. Residents live in private apartment suites where they receive just the right level of care and support they need to stay safe and healthy while maintaining their independence. If you feel the time is right, we encourage you to start researching and touring assisted living options in your area to find the right fit for your loved one.