If you care for a family member with dementia, you know all too well how important it is that you take care of yourself too.
While there's no question that you'll do everything you can to make sure that your loved one is safe and comfortable, doing that is beyond stressful.
It can be depleting.
In fact, according to a PBS article
by Leah Eskenazi of the Family Caregiver Alliance
, spouses between the ages of 66 and 96 who provide care are at a greater risk for mental and emotional strain, and they “have a 63 percent higher risk of dying than people the same age who are not caregivers.”
And for adult children caregivers who also juggle work, kids, and relationships, there's “an increased risk for depression, impaired immune system and likelihood for developing one or more chronic health conditions, such as hypertension, high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol.”
If you struggle with the stress of caregiving, I feel your pain. I've looked after the safety and well-being of a family member with dementia for eight years. During that time, I've wrestled with at least nine out of the 13 risks in long-term caregiving that Eskenazi describes in her article. She also offers 10 tips for taking care of yourself, and I've listed them here with some explanation based on my experiences:
1. Take a break from caregiving.
Get your mind off of your responsibilities by going to the movies, the gym, a park, or out to dinner with a friend. It can be hard to make the time and get the energy for these things, but you need them to rejuvenate your energy and your soul.
2. Get support.
Find a support group through an organization like the Alzheimer's Association
or the Family Caregiver Alliance
For my part, I've never done this because the last thing I want to submerge myself in when I'm away from my loved one is more about dementia. But it makes sense to problem-solve or just vent among people who know what you're going though.
It's also essential to maintain your friendships and relationships. Stress, time constraints, and depression can prevent you from nurturing your relationships, but those relationships can help you keep your head above water. Even if your friends don’t have the same responsibilities as you, just talking and venting can help you feel some relief.
3. Practice communication and behavior management skills.
These include using clear and short sentences and making sure that the tone, volume, and cadence of your voice don't upset your loved one. Nonverbal communication is also important: loving gestures or even just a smile can make your loved one feel calmer and less anxious. It's also important to allow your loved one time to process what you say.
Keep up with the hobbies and interests that you love. I actually abandoned many of my favorite activities for a couple years because I didn't have the energy for them. But even if you lack time or inclination for one, keep up with your other outlets. "Read a book, meditate, pray, garden, knit, get a massage, take a long bath," advises Eskenazi.
And I'll tell ya—that stuff helps.
5. Take care of your health.
Make time for your own doctors' appointments. Get as much sleep as you can. Eat well. And say "no" to obligations when you need to.
6. Change “guilt” to “regret.”
For me, the initial regret I felt when my loved one started declining turned into guilt about how I couldn't stop her decline, how I could never do enough to make things better, and how it seems that I've never been able to find the right living situation for her. But Eskenazi puts that into perspective: "Guilt is you did something wrong," she writes, "regret is that you are in a difficult situation and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, but they are not wrong."
7. Forgive yourself—often.
You're not a bad person if you feel angry, guilty, frustrated, overwhelmed, or exhausted. That's natural. If you feel resentment about your obligations, or if you feel bad that you can't be there around the clock, that's natural too. Those feelings don't mean you don't love your person, they just mean that you're human. It's important to acknowledge and accept your emotions, and to talk about them.
Watch your favorite funny movie, tune in to the sitcom that always makes you laugh, share jokes with a friend, keep an eye on social media for funny photos and videos. Personally I love instant messaging amusing comments to my coworkers and following Emergency Kittens
Walking, riding a bike, dancing, swimming—anything is good. I make it a priority to take a walk after lunch, to do light yoga on weeknights, and to do extended workouts on the weekends. All of that helps me release and rejuvenate.
10. Ask for and accept help when offered.
I have trouble with this one in some ways. I rarely ask for help with doing errands or chores. Occasionally I ask a friend to be a buffer to help me handle my loved one's behavior when I take her out to dinner or an appointment. But when it comes to finding a facility or making tough decisions, I often ask for guidance—or at least an ear.
What works for you? What helps you take care of yourself?