15 ways to take care of yourself while caring for a loved one

Feb. 19, 2013 at 4:57 PM ET

15 Things You Must Do for Yourself as a Caregiver
Terry Vine/blend images/getty images /
15 Things You Must Do for Yourself as a Caregiver

Cook like you’re feeding an army
Eating well can give you the energy you need to power through busy days—but juggling caregiving with a host of other responsibilities can make it hard to prepare healthy meals. “Taking care of my dad when he had cancer was grueling,” says Nicole Risdall, 39, in Los Angeles, California. “Most days I only managed to make one hasty meal. I ended up 15 pounds underweight and severely depressed.”

Tip: Instead of trying to orchestrate three square meals a day, make the freezer your friend. Once each week, cook a large batch of something tasty that freezes well (like a hearty soup, chili, bean dish or stew) and freeze it in serving-sized containers. Snack on 1/2 cup of nuts between meals and stock up on grab-and-go fruits and veggies (like baby carrots, pears, apples or bananas).

Make sure you exercise
You might think you’re getting enough of a workout just running around all day. But to prevent chronic stress, anxiety and depression—problems that plague about one in three caregivers—you must try to get some real exercise in every day, suggests James Huysman, Psy.D., co-author of Take Your Oxygen First. If you can carve out 20 to 30 minutes for a daily walk, fitness class, some yoga or resistance training, you’ll cut your risk of stress-triggered ills in half, say researchers at Logan’s Utah State University. “I stopped exercising when I was caring for my dad, and that was a huge mistake,” admits Risdall. “Exercise keeps my mind and body in balance, and my strength and energy levels up. Without those workouts, I felt stressed, scattered and tired.” 

Make sleep a priority
Caregivers who make an effort to stay well-rested have better blood-sugar control and fewer food cravings, eating 15 percent less junk food than their sleepless counterparts. They’re also 50 percent less likely to catch colds, the flu and bacterial infections, and they’re half as likely to be hit with blue moods and depression, say Cornell University researchers. But what if you’re too swamped to stick to a regular bedtime or the person you’re caring for has a funky sleep schedule that affects your own? Take cat naps, sleep in if you can, put down your to-do list so you can head to bed whatever you can to sneak in those Zzz’s, says psychologist James B. Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep.

Stay connected with friends
Caregivers who confide in friends when times get tough have blood pressure 20 points lower than folks who slog through hard days alone—plus, they’re 55 percent less likely to struggle with depression, insomnia and burnout, according to University of Pittsburgh studies. The reason: When you connect with friends, your brain produces oxytocin—a hormone that calms your nerves and prevents stress hormone surges.

Take 10 minutes daily to send newsy e-mails or catch up with quick telephone chats.

Develop a thick skin
“As the years passed, my mom regressed and became moody, obstinate and even rude—whatever control there used to be over that part of her behavior was completely stripped away,” says Henry Winkler, 67, former actor and now author of 23 children’s books. “It took a Herculean effort to not take that personally—I had to constantly remind myself that these weren’t hurtful attacks, they were the result of changes in her brain.” If your loved one is being less than, well, loving, ask her doctor to explain exactly what’s going on and what you can expect next. Understanding how her brain is changing—and how that’s likely to affect her personality and moods—can give you the knowledge you need to weather rough days with fewer hurt feelings, says Winkler. 

Walk a mile in your shoes
You wouldn’t hesitate to encourage and support a weary friend—but when was the last time you cut yourself a little slack when you were too tired to finish a task or your moods were in a turmoil? If you can’t remember, you owe yourself a pat on the back and a little TLC. “I’m caregiving for my 87-year-old mom and 92-year-old father—this soaks up almost 20 hours of every week, and the truth is, it’s draining—I could use a break!” admits geriatric physician Linda Rhodes, M.D., author of The Essential Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. Realize that you’re going to have low points and there will be times when you feel overwhelmed. Then treat yourself as kindly as you’d treat a friend when it happens. 

Hang onto your sense of humor
“One day, my very elderly mom and I were sitting in a crowded waiting room—she saw a poster about pregnancy, and started questioning me, loudly, about whether she might be pregnant,” says Annelie Rudlaff, 43, in Woodland Park, Colorado. “I couldn’t stop giggling—we had a lot of funny moments like that!” True, a lot of days can be downers, but if you look for the levity and savor it when it hits, you’ll feel calmer, happier and more optimistic. Plus you’ll struggle with 25 percent fewer tension headaches and muscle pains, say researchers at Lexington’s University of Kentucky. 

Over-prepare for outings
One day, Rudlaff and her mom got delayed at the doctor’s office without extra Depends. “Suddenly, my mom started yelling that she had to go—and before I could carry her into the tiny bathroom, she’d soiled her clothes,” says Rudlaff. “It took ages to clean her up with paper towels—we were giggling and crying at the same time, it was so ridiculous and undignified.”

Whenever you’re heading out for a trek with your loved one, pack a bag with anything they might need—snacks, a change of clothing, a warm sweater, medication, absorbent undies—so delays or unexpected surprises will be less likely to rattle you. 

Take shortcuts
“Cutting your workload by taking shortcuts can make caregiving so much easier, but that martyr thing often gets in the way and people try to do everything and hang onto their sky-high standards,” says Huysman. Don’t. You can save yourself hours of work weekly just by hiring a cleaning service or someone to do the yard work. And get creative: Find out if your grocery store or pharmacy makes deliveries, try online shopping, ditch fussy outfits that need lots of ironing, clear out closets or other nooks that are too cluttered to be efficient...if it saves time and makes your life easier, do it!

Play along
Rudlaff’s mom loved football and used to tape lots of games back in the VCR days. “We had an old Superbowl still on tape when she got sick, and I’d put that on for her at night when she couldn’t sleep,” Rudlaff says. “Every single time, she’d call out and ask if I knew the game was on. I’d thank her for telling me and then drift off to sleep—it was hilarious.” Trying to convince a loved one that he's confused or mistaken, or that his behavior is odd, is often a complete waste of time. If what they’re thinking or doing isn’t going to cause any harm, just join in and play along, suggest doctors at New York University. 

Watch for burnout
“Caregivers provide $400 billion worth of services for ailing people every year—if they went on strike, our health care system would collapse,” notes Huysman. That’s a lot of hard, unpaid work—and a lot of stress. If you’re struggling with symptoms of burnout, tell your doctor that you need support—now—so you can continue caregiving, suggests Huysman. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, these are six signs that you’ve reached the end of your rope and need some h: 

-You feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster—angry one minute, sad and helpless the next. 

-You seem to catch every bug that comes your way.
-You snap at people and often overreact to things they do.
-You know you should take care of yourself, but you just can’t find the time.
-You can’t remember the last time you went out and did something fun.
-It feels like you’re the go-to caregiver. Always.
Remember your nuclear family
Yep, they’re still there—and they may be struggling to adjust to this new situation, just like you, says Huysman. In a recent caregiver survey, nine in 10 women admitted that taking on the task of helping an aging relative had a negative impact on their immediate family. An easy Rx: Arrange one or two relaxed family meetings each month, so you can talk about what’s going on, plan some fun events and reconnect. “Those regular get-togethers can be very reassuring and very healing for the whole family,” says Huysman. 

Adjust to your siblings’ needs
They may want to know everything you know—about doctor’s appointments, medication changes, treatment options and financial and legal matters. Or they may be more comfortable just focusing on the caregiver tasks they’ve taken on, and not thinking about matters that are out of their control. Finding your siblings' comfort level will help make chats less stressful. “I was constantly calling my brother with updates about how I was handling our dad’s finances so everything would be upfront and honest,” says Risdall. “The problem is, my brother doesn’t handle stress well. He finally asked me to stop telling him about the money, because he trusted me, plus my updates were completely stressing him out!” 

Recognize denial
You’re caring for someone whose struggles may continue to worsen. Have you made peace with the way things are now—and the way they may progress in the future? Caregivers often retreat into denial, and while that can help you get over the shock of learning that a loved one has suddenly fallen ill, it can make day-to-day life difficult if it never ends. If you have any of the following symptoms, a psychologist or other counselor can help you sort out your feelings: 

-You often walk around in a daze and you feel like you’re just going through the motions of life.
-You’re easily distracted and often don’t see things around you.
-You tend to misinterpret what others say or do.
-You’ve become less efficient and small tasks are starting to feel more complicated.
-You tend to obsess about minor details and avoid larger responsibilities.
-You feel mechanical or numb, but sometimes explode, taking others (and yourself) by surprise.

Reach out
There are a lot of people out there in the same situation as you—as many as 62 million of them, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Here, some quick links to help you track down like-minded people, services and support: 

-Family Caregiver Alliance
-National Alliance for Caregiving
-National Caregivers Library
-National Family Caregivers Association

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.