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10 Ways Caregivers Can Improve Their Own Self-Care

Author reveals which strategies work best for her

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The very best caregivers are typically those who are also best friends to themselves.

That is the overarching theme of an important new book, Self-Care for Caregivers: A Practical Guide to Caring for You While You Care for Your Loved One, by author, blogger, and long-time caregiver Susanne White. The book is packed with dozens of practical tips from White who served for years as a caregiver for both of her now-deceased parents — and who, even now at age 70 — continues to be a caregiver for family members.

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“Caregivers are the most adaptable human beings on the planet,” says White. “I’m concerned how caregivers are so completely focused on someone else that they stop focusing on themselves. That’s dangerous. It’s a silent epidemic.”

Self-care, White says, is the fine art of prioritizing your own needs even as you look out for the well-being of a loved one. This is where most caregivers fail. By her own estimates, fewer than 5 percent of caregivers indulge in regular self-care. And that’s why so many caregivers find themselves in a daily struggle for survival. They struggle physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “Caregivers deserve peace, well-being, and a happy life,” she says.

How to get there? White shares some advice.

Make time for self-care. Somehow, caregivers are always able to find endless amounts of time to offer care to their loved ones — particularly during times of crisis. White suggests caregivers carve out 15 percent from the time they would devote to their loved ones to themselves.  “We all have caregiver burnout from time to time, but there’s a big difference in hitting the wall at 15 miles per hour vs. 150 miles per hour,” she says. “Lightning won’t strike you for taking time for yourself.”

Take simple escapes. Most of us need to take breaks because we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired — or some combination of these. If you’re hungry, eat a snack. If you’re angry, step outside for a few minutes.  If you’re lonely, pick up the phone and call an understanding friend or relative. If you’re tired, take a short nap. “The people we care for want us to take breaks. They don’t want to see us exhausted, frustrated, or in pain,” says White. “They don’t want to feel guilty about us taking care of them.” 

Seek the help of others. Perhaps the best source of help and consolation is that of other caregivers who have the experience, knowledge, know-how, and empathy that no one else does, says White.  “I thought that I could do it all myself until I realized I had burnout,” she says.  When she finally called others for help — including friends, relatives and other caregiver acquaintances — she says, “They actually thanked me for finally asking them. They said that they were waiting to help me.”

Drop negative influences. If there are people around you who are offering unwanted — often negative — advice or feedback about your caregiving, you must withdraw from them. “You want to get rid of any people around you who are not supportive,” she says. Even if these friends are family members, this kind of “help” will only set you back, she says. “You want to only surround yourself with people who are positive, trustworthy, supportive, loving, and kind.”

Indulge in daydreaming. Many caregivers quickly lose touch with one of their most important allies: their imagination. "You have to maintain a connection with that trip you might want to take or that place you might want to visit,” she says. “Caregivers deserve moments of daydreaming and positive thoughts for the future.”

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Create a sanctuary. It might be lighting a scented candle or playing calming music.  A sanctuary should look, feel and smell good and give you a sense of peace — even if it’s just sitting in the grass and reading a book, she says.

Eat and drink well. Just as you introduce healthy foods into the lives of those you care for, do the same for yourself when you shop — particularly with healthy snacks such as protein bars, fresh veggies and even smoothies, says White. Hydration is critical to well-being too. Every time you get a glass of water for your loved one, get one for yourself, she suggests.

Dress comfortably.  “You want to feel as good physically as you want your loved one to feel,” says  White. Wear whatever makes you most comfortable.  This is particularly critical with your shoes. Ask your favorite nurse what shoes she regularly wears at work and consider investing in those, she says.

Get outside. Plan several outside breaks into your day — even if they are very short. It’s typically better emotionally to take a walk outdoors than, say, to walk in the hallway of an apartment building. “It can be life-changing to step outside for 10 minutes,” says White.

Reward yourself.  Set aside a few moments every day to give yourself a small reward, says White.  Her favorite reward has always been a scoop of ice cream. “I’d think of one battle I’d won that day and reward myself by having ice cream with my parents,” she says.

5 Little Reminders for Caregivers

Forgive yourself.  Remember, you are not a miracle worker. You will sometimes run out of patience. That’s okay. “Be as kind to yourself as the person who you care for,” says White.

Learn from mistakes. Of course, you will make mistakes. Learn from them then let them go, says White. “Mistakes are your best friend. That’s how you get smarter,” she says.

Accept anger. “If you get angry at someone who you’re caring for, that’s entirely normal. You are not a bad caregiver. Learn to process it,” she says.

Be grateful. Remember that caregiving for a loved one is a privilege, not a burden. Take the time to stop and look at them during their good moments. “It’s an honor to take care of someone you love,” she says. 

Learn to heal. In the process of caregiving for her mother for more than a decade, Wilson was able to repair and heal the rocky relationship she’d previously had with her while White was in her 20s. “Caregiving was the hardest and best thing I ever did,” she says.

Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS' Next Avenue.