All illustrations by Chi Birmingham
Caring for a sick loved one can take a huge toll on your health. Try these 6 simple tips on how to take better care of you:
1. Make the freezer your friend
"Telling caregivers to 'eat right' is useless advice," says Washington, D.C., dietitian Katherine Tallmadge. Caregivers usually know what to eat; they just don't have time to cook healthier meals.
Her answer: batch cooking, which lets you freeze individual portions that you can eat during the week. She tells harried caregivers to make a big pot of a hearty, all-in-one meal like a soup with meat, beans and vegetables, or a stew.
See also: the AARP Caregiving Resource Center
2. Mix in Meditation
Twelve minutes of daily meditation can dramatically improve the mental health of caregivers, report UCLA researchers. In that study, 65 percent of family caregivers who practiced a chanting yogic meditation called Kirtan Kriya every day for eight weeks saw a 50 percent improvement on a depression-rating scale. Meditation also increased telomerase activity — a sign that cellular aging had slowed, says study author Helen Lavretsky, M.D.
3. Stockpile Healthy Snacks
Nutritious foods you can grab on the run help keep blood sugar levels on an even keel and energy levels from flagging, says Tallmadge. She nixes the typical granola bars — "too high in sugar" — opting instead for what she calls "real food" with hunger-busting protein. That means a handful of whole almonds or a PB&J sandwich. Plus, healthy snacks are a good way to add more fruits, vegetables and fiber to your diet.
4. Slow Down
Whether it's heating up food for dinner or helping someone in the bathroom, the advice is the same: Don't rush. "It sounds obvious, but when you're stressed and distracted, you're more prone to having accidents. What you don't need is to cut or burn yourself, or slip in the tub," says Karen Rowinsky, an Overland Park, Kansas, social worker who specializes in caregiver counseling. Such accidents can be a warning sign that you're at your limit, a 2006 study finds.
This may seem counter‑intuitive — you're already doing so much to help your family member. But helping out in a different way, in a different setting, can be gratifying and therapeutic, says Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: "One woman told me she volunteers weekly at an animal shelter because the pets are so responsive." Plus, volunteers live longer than nonvolunteers, a University of Michigan study found last year.
6. Improve Your Sleep Habits
Disrupted sleep saps your energy for dealing with the demands of caregiving, says Cleveland Clinic geriatrician Ronan Factora, M.D. Brain scans of sleep-deprived patients in the University of California, Berkeley's sleep lab also found that brain measures of anxiety shot up by more than 60 percent in those who were the most fatigued. So adopt good sleep habits — a dark room, fewer distractions in the bedroom — for more restful sleep.