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Help for Solo Caregivers

If you're taking care of a loved one on your own, here's everything you need to know

Woman brushes hair of senior lady, Solo caregivers are encouraged to take care of themselves and get needed help

Beau Lark/Corbis

Solo caregivers can take advantage of support groups offered by community centers and religious institutions.

The first piece of advice every new caregiver hears is "Be sure to get help."

But what if you don't have anyone in your family you can call on? What if you don't have siblings, or the ones you do have live far away or are unable — or simply unwilling — to lend a hand?

See also: Caregiving Resource Center

"Family caregiving can be a grueling, grinding slog — and 90 percent of the time, the brunt of the work falls on one person's shoulders," says clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. Jacobs, a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel, cautions that caring for a loved one is a marathon, not a sprint. To calm the emotional chaos and get through the day, you have to figure out how to run that race as smartly and strategically as possible. These suggestions can help:

Take care of your own health. Most caregivers don't. "They're less likely to go for regular checkups, fill prescriptions, get mammograms, cook healthy meals for themselves or get enough sleep," says Marion Somers, a geriatric care manager and author of Elder Care Made Easier. The result: higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety. "But just like on an airplane when you're told to put your oxygen mask on first, you need to take care of yourself or you won't be able to care for someone else." Be alert to signs of anxiety or depression (irritability, tearfulness, lack of interest in things you used to love to do, trouble sleeping or concentrating) and consult your doctor if necessary.

Find kindred spirits. Marathoners who train together go farther because they root each other on. Joining a support group — in person or online — will help you feel less alone, give you a chance to vent as well as to hear how others are handling similar situations.

There's more help out there than you may realize: Churches, synagogues and community agencies often provide hotlines and round-the-clock service such as hot meal delivery, transportation, home health aides, housekeeping and adult respite day care. Check out the support and resources available on the AARP Caregiving Resource Center website at and the U.S. Administration on Aging's Eldercare Locator at, where you'll find information about your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). An elder law attorney can help you navigate the confusing array of insurance and veteran benefits your loved one may be eligible for, as well as state and federal programs that can help to cover the costs of daily expenses. Two other good sources for information are the Family Caregiver Alliance and Lotsa Helping

Stop beating yourself up. Caregiving triggers a host of difficult emotions: You feel resentful, then guilty about feeling resentful, then angry at having been made to feel guilty. "That doesn't mean you don't love the person you're caring for. It doesn't mean you're selfish. It means you're human," says Jacobs. "Most caregivers have negative feelings about caregiving," he adds. "What's to love about changing diapers or listening to someone ask the same question 100 times?" So instead of criticizing yourself or stuffing your feelings inside, write them in a journal, talk about them with a trusted friend or share them with an online support group.

Get organized. Develop a daily routine and stick to it. Use a day planner, Google calendar, notebook or white board to prioritize tasks. Note tasks that must be done on a daily basis (personal hygiene, meal preparation, dressing, managing medications) as well as those that are important but less critical (home maintenance, paying bills, random errands). Set email and/or text alerts so you don't miss any doctor appointments or forget to pick up a prescription. Post phone numbers for doctors and pharmacists as well as insurance policy numbers where you can easily spot them.

Be a little selfish. Ideally, reserve one day a week to take your loved one to an adult care center or hire a home caregiver so you can meet friends, see a movie, take a Zumba class or do whatever nourishes your spirit. If your loved one balks at your plan, be firm. You deserve a break, so don't cave in to guilt. At the very least, carve out 10 minutes several times a day to meditate, listen to music or flip through a magazine. Tape several episodes of your loved one's favorite TV show for him to watch while you grab a cup of tea on the deck.

Carry a list. Jot down everything you do each day plus items that need to be bought, returned or tended to — whether it's grocery shopping, taking the dog to the vet or finding someone to cover for you for 30 minutes so you can get out of the house. The next time a neighbor or friend asks if you need anything, tell her exactly what she can do and a time when you can use her help.

Let go. Consider whether you're making your situation worse. It's not unusual for caregivers to insist on controlling every aspect of care, but that can actually discourage others from stepping up. "If you try to be Superwoman, people may not realize how much work and time is involved, or even that you want them to help," says Somers.