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Caregiving's Many Faces

Whether you're helping a family member or friend, put your own health first

En español | At some point in our lives, we are all going to be caregivers, particularly when loved ones become ill or can no longer care for themselves. I was amazed to learn recently that more than 50 million people provide unpaid care for chronically ill, disabled or older family members during any given year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With November being National Family Caregivers Month, it is a great opportunity to thank and celebrate these unsung heroes.

Three women arm in arm, caregiving for friend with breast cancer

As a caregiver, it's important to also take care of yourself. — Getty Images

Several years ago, I became a caregiver to my beloved mum before she passed away from emphysema at age 75. The experience was very difficult, but there was never any doubt that I was going to be there for her, just as she was there for me my entire life.

I also had a very close friend who was battling lung cancer, and she lived in my house in Aspen as she underwent treatments. I came home to be there for her as much as my work schedule allowed. Friends taking care of friends. That's caregiving too.

I've also been on the receiving end of caregiving. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, many friends offered to help me, but I declined it — at first. But my wise doctor reminded me: "You're going to go through some very serious treatments, and if you have just five friends helping you, your chances of recovery are much greater."

And so, I let my friends and family in. They drove me to my appointments, cooked dinner for me and stayed by my side. They held me together when I was falling apart. After my treatments were over, we had a party to celebrate. There was a lot of laughter and many tears. I credit their love and support with helping me heal.

Today, because of that experience, I see myself as a caregiver in yet another way — supporting other women dealing with breast cancer, and encouraging all women to go for their annual mammograms and be vigilant about breast health. I speak out about these issues because I care so deeply about fighting this dreaded disease. That is why I went public with my story. I try to let my life be an example of what I'm talking about.

I've also learned something pretty significant about caregiving: When caregivers don't take care of themselves, they aren't any good to anyone. Think of what you're told in an airplane before you take off: You need to put on your oxygen mask before you can help your child with one. Granted, it's easier said than done. While caring for Mom, I often skipped meals or grabbed whatever food on the run. I didn't sleep enough, either. I allowed myself to get run-down.

If you are a caregiver — whether a primary caregiver for a loved one, or a friend helping a friend through a difficult time — here are a few tips:

  • Take time-outs. Not spending time on yourself puts you in the fast lane toward Stressville. Do your hobbies, keep your regular routine as much as possible, spend time with friends and so forth. If you need someone to sub for you, ask family, neighbors or friends to cover for you for at least an hour or two.
  • De-stress. If you're anxious or feel like you're on an emotional roller coaster, get some exercise. It releases stress hormones and, most of all, we just feel so good after! Also consider meditation, progressive relaxation or yoga — all calming activities that churn out feel-good chemicals in your body.
  • Put your health first. Increase your fruit and vegetable consumption. Stick to natural foods. Shun alcohol; it's a depressant and will make you feel worse. The same goes for drugs and tobacco. And of course, drugs, nicotine and alcohol are all sleep robbers. By making healthy choices, you strengthen your immune system, which can get damaged by neglecting your health. If you just concentrated on these few steps, you'll be the best caregiver in your home.
  • Tap into supportive resources. AARP has a wealth of information that speaks to, and helps, caregivers. Visit AARP's Caregiving Resource Center to connect with experts and local agencies, and to receive advice and emotional support from other caregivers.

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Video Extra

AARP Chief Executive Officer Barry Rand and AARP Executive Vice President Deb Whitman discuss the experience of caregiving and AARP's resources for caregivers.

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