With every new year comes the promise of new beginnings, with many a resolution centered on improving one’s health, happiness and well-being. For those caring for an aging parent, though, it’s tough to put yourself first. Caregivers tend to overlook their own mental and physical health, and often feel guilty about taking time for themselves. But did you know that’s actually the best possible thing you can do for your loved one?
Think about this: You’re on an airplane traveling with a young child or an elderly adult. The oxygen masks fall. What are you supposed to do? The instructions are clear: put the mask over yourself first – so you’ll be able help those who can’t help themselves. The same is true when it comes to taking care of your older loved one, sibling or spouse. The fact is, staying healthy and happy yourself will ultimately allow you to provide better care for someone else. This includes asking for help, minding your health, getting organized and talking it out. Here’s how you can get started:
Ask for help. Caring for a loved one can be an overwhelming job, yet many caregivers are determined to go it alone. This is a mistake. You’re not any less of a caregiver if you take some time out for yourself, seek out support or delegate tasks to others. All too often I see caregivers play the martyr when all they need to do is ask for help. It can be something as simple as asking someone to help you fold laundry, or having a child visit or send a friendly card or e-mail to brighten a loved one’s day.
Mind your health. I’ve seen caregivers who become so overworked and overwhelmed that they get sick and can no longer help their loved ones; some even pass away before the person for whom they are caring. Studies have shown that caregiving can lead to increased health problems; in fact, one third of caregivers report themselves to be in fair-to-poor health. This doesn’t only mean physical illness; the impact also could be as simple as feeling exhausted or becoming bitter and resentful. This is not productive, and ultimately your loved ones’ care could suffer.
Get organized. Providing care for an elder loved one is a huge responsibility in terms of physical and mental energy, time and financial resources. The only way to do it is to be as organized as possible. Make a plan and stick to it. Keep track of everything: doctors’ appointments, financial outlays, short-term and long-term goals. Set priorities and see them through. Take a close look at your own schedule and resources, and determine what it will really require for you to take care of yourself first, then to care for your loved one. What are you willing to sacrifice, if anything? What are the other priorities in your life? Be realistic about your limitations, your energy level, your time constraints, your family obligations and your work commitments.
Talk it out. It often helps to have someone outside of your family to talk to, someone who won’t judge you and isn’t a part of your family history. If nobody is available or you’re not comfortable with therapy, consider keeping a journal of your caregiving experience. Keeping perspective will help you stay balanced and give you more energy for yourself and your loved one.
The bottom line: It’s best for everyone if you make sure to meet your own needs. Don’t take on too much. Remember, you are not alone in this trying time. So don’t back yourself into a corner: Be honest, be realistic and be practical about where you need help beyond your own talents and endurance.
May this be your best year yet!
Dr. Marion recently offered insight for a multipart series about caregiving on WomansDay.com.
Love Dr. Marion’s advice? Take it with you with her FREE elder care apps for the iPhone! If you’re caring for an older loved one, these useful tools will help you be prepared for any situation. Download them here today.
DR. MARION SOMERS