Finding Balance: Tips for Managing Caregiving and Self-Care
Article written by Sarah Cormell, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a clinical social worker in Psychiatry and Psychology in Menomonie, Wisconsin
As a caregiver, you and your loved one are going through this experience together. Using these tips can help you navigate caregiving and self-care:
- Take time to plan.
If you're considering taking on the role of the primary caregiver, spend time reflecting on and planning for how caregiving affects your other roles.
Here are things to consider before you accept a caregiving role:
- What are the expectations of you as the primary caregiver?
- This should include expectations from the loved one and other family members at a family meeting.
- What's the anticipated timeline for caregiving, and what are the next steps in care for a loved one who needs more support?
- This could include moving in with a family member, transitioning to an assisted living facility or nursing home, or bringing professional caregiving or nursing support into your home.
- What supports are available to your nuclear family when you're occupied with caregiving tasks, such as laundry, housecleaning or childcare?
- What will your work schedule look like, and how much time away will you need?
- Can you speak to your supervisor and human resources department about your new responsibilities, and seek Family and Medical Leave Act benefits if needed?
- Be mindful of your needs and emotions.
Your intentions for becoming a caregiver are good, and it can be a rewarding experience. Take time to regularly check in with yourself to ensure your needs are met.
Writing down your list of your needs is a good way to organize your thoughts and check off what's important to you. If family isn't an option, what public and private support resources are available to give you time to recharge?
Pay attention to red flags that you're stressed, including:
- Always putting your wants or needs on the back burner.
- Becoming short-tempered or frustrated.
- Experiencing fatigue or low energy.
- Facing a sense of loneliness or isolation.
- Feeling anger or resentment toward the loved one.
- Feeling disorganized or overwhelmed.
- Feeling nervous or anxious.
- Weeping or crying frequently, which isn't associated with the grieving process.
Paying attention to how you feel emotionally and physically when managing stressors is important because those feelings can be the first clues to your needs. Then you can take steps to process, manage, and address the wants and needs behind the feelings.
- Map it out.
Once you know your feelings and needs, you can communicate them to other supporters or your loved one, whether it's having others take shifts so you can get away for a weekend, getting help with errands or taking time to exercise each day.
Make a list of resources in your personal and professional networks to find support. This could include siblings, family, friends, neighbors, your loved one's friends, or local aging and disability resource centers. Another option is hiring support services, such as a social worker or nurse, for in-home or transitional care. Remember, finding solutions is essential so you can continue to give and take care.
- Make the ask.
It can be a heavy responsibility to carry most of the caregiver role; no one should be alone in the experience. It also can be difficult or uncomfortable to ask for help.
Now is the time to set aside assumptions or family dynamics and simply make the ask. I often tell caregivers: "Let's test it. You ask or state what's needed, and let them say yes or no." The answer might be yes, and what a relief that would be. If it's no, you still have narrowed the options based on fact, not assumptions.
Be specific when you ask for help. Instead of asking, "Could you come over and sit with mom sometime?" or "It would be nice to have help around here," rephrase it to: "Could you sit with mom for two hours on Saturday morning? I'll need to know by Wednesday," or "Can you mow dad's lawn on Sunday afternoon?" or "Can you do the laundry on Friday while I pick up my daughter?"
You also can make a to-do list and place it where others can see it. The point is to make the communication clear. Even if the answer isn't immediately "Yes, of course," it can be the starting point for planning to meet everyone's schedule.
As you share the responsibility and trust others, your mood will improve, and you'll feel more supported and recharged.
- Set boundaries.
Sometimes you must set boundaries of acceptable behaviors or requests with the loved one you're caring for. It's not uncommon for them to develop a preference for your care over others or expect that you stay with them despite having other caregivers available.
Good boundary setting means respectfully and clearly communicating your expectations, limits and needs. Think about your loved one's capabilities. Is the request appropriate? If not, discuss what you will or won't do. State facts when talking about expectations, such as: "Mom, I need to go to my daughter's house and see the grandbaby. Janelle is going to be with you when I'm gone. You know I love you, but it's hard for me when you get mad at me when I take time to see others."
Boundary setting is a type of self-care as well. Some people think good caregivers give whatever their loved one needs or wants. Setting boundaries so you can take time to exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, or socialize with friends or loved ones helps you recharge.
Finally, boundary setting helps when managing intense emotions. Stressful situations and strong emotions often go together. Notice and acknowledge your feelings but remember you don't need to become the emotion. You can be empathetic and supportive of your loved one and have your boundaries and values respected while not allowing your emotions to dictate how you react to stress.
- Seek professional help.
Many caregivers can benefit from professional mental health counseling to help them cope with the stress and challenges of the role. Therapists can help you work through your experience and identify your stressors. For instance, if family dynamics contribute to your stress, a therapist can help you develop scripts for talking with loved ones about the situation and possible solutions. They also can help you develop solution-focused action plans for managing other challenging caregiving circumstances.
Be gentle with yourself. The best measure of caregiver success is if you did your best with what you had at that moment. Just remember you don't have to go it alone.
Are you a caregiver or considering becoming a caregiver? What is one tip you can put into practice today?