It’s true that caregiving brings with it a stress load that can threaten the health and well-being of the caregiver. That’s why so many experts—me included—so strongly advocate for caregivers to engage in active self-care.
One way to deal with the lack of time for self-care is to whittle down the to-do list to a basic three that cannot, and should not, be neglected. I call them the Self-care Trinity: Exercise, Sleep, and Healthful Eating.
Think of them in terms of your car. We make time to maintain it, operate it wisely and fuel it well so that it can continue to provide transportation. Your health is as important to your caregiving as having a well-running car.
Caregivers must care for themselves first
Exercise: You need to exercise a minimum of 30 minutes a day every day to help your body throw off the effects of stress. Your adrenal system is hard at work and it’s filling your blood with hormones that aren’t particularly helpful. Moving your body will help burn some of them away. It needn’t be 30 minutes or more at one time, if that doesn’t work for you. Be creative. Use five, ten or 15-minute blocks of time throughout the day and do something you enjoy. Even a brisk walk around the neighborhood counts!
Sleep: You need seven to 10 hours of sleep out of every 24. You can fudge on the overnight sleep, but only if you can make it up in a nap during the day. Lack of sleep is a short-cut to caregiver burnout and serious, life-threatening illnesses. If you’re not getting enough sleep because your elderly loved one needs you at night, then find help overnight or for a few hours during the day so you can nap. Perhaps your loved one needs sleep aids for a quiet night’s sleep. Perhaps you do because your stress levels are keeping your from getting the sleep you need. Talk to either yours or your loved one’s doctor about sleep aids or remedies for your particular issue.
Eating: Athletes know that their performance can be helped or hindered by what they eat. Keep that in mind and go for healthful choices such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grilled meats instead of fried, and drink plenty (as in at least 64 ounces) of water during the day. Steer away from caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, high-fat foods (like French fries) and white sugar. If you must eat fast food, find places that make fresh food like sandwich shops and Mexican grills. If you find yourself in a burger place, opt for a salad.
I know that these suggestions may sound like a lot to add to your already-full to-do list, but they are important for your continued ability to give care. Another way to look at it is that you need to be as compassionate in caring for yourself as you are in caring for your loved one. Ask yourself this question: “If I become ill, who will care for my loved one?”