How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Caring for Everybody Else

The average U.S. caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside the home. She’s spent about 20 hours a week providing unpaid care for her own mother for nearly five years, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.  

This caregiver likely waited a bit longer to have children, so she finds herself doubly burdened, caring for both an elderly parent and school-aged kids. And the weight that this “sandwich generation” bears is not just emotional — caretaking can wreak havoc on finances as well. Fifteen percent of middle-aged adults in America are financially supporting an aging parent and an adult child, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report.

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The good news is that it’s possible to get through these challenging years happily and healthily. The key is making sure you don’t ignore your needs in favor of those you’re caring for. Take these steps to lighten the load of being a caregiver.

1. Figure out your benefits.
Check with your HR department to see if your employer has an elder care program, says Ellen Dolgen, a women’s health and wellness advocate. It would also be wise to ask about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows some workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to help care for family. If that doesn’t cover your needs, HR departments can refer you to caregiver resources in the community, on-site support groups for working caregivers, and discounted backup home care for emergency needs, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

If that doesn’t do the trick, talk to your manager about your situation. Bosses are human, after all, and yours might be willing to create a schedule that lets you maximize your productivity at work. Try starting with, “I value and love this job, and I want to be able to meet its demands and also take care of my mother, who is ill. Is there any arrangement, such as work-from-home days or a flexible schedule, that would enable me to care for my mother while continuing to perform at the same level I’ve been at here? This would be a temporary arrangement.”

2. Talk with your family about caretaking arrangements — in advance if you can.
Some of the burden of caretaking lies in the emotional conversations around it. Demystify the process by taking a practical approach, and make sure you involve your siblings or other close family members in the process, says Dolgen. When the task of caretaking is shared and planned, you feel more in control.

One useful strategy is to get the family together and delegate tasks around caregiving, such as paperwork, visits, and coordination with caretaking facilities. Try writing out a balanced plan that takes everyone’s geography and personal strengths into consideration. Even though it’s tough, this is best done in person. If that’s not possible, then use the phone to talk (not text) about a plan, and once expectations are clear, email everyone a schedule for paperwork deadlines, visits, and other requirements.

3. Strengthen friendships with people who can relate.
Having the support of a community makes a huge difference in how we experience the caregiver role. You want to aim for that feeling of connection and belonging that releases oxytocin, causing your stress level to drop, says Renee Trudeau, author of Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal.

Trudeau and Dolgen both recommend scheduling a weekly coffee, drink, or lunch date with another person who understands the day-to-day life of a caregiver, like another parent or someone taking care of their own parents. This person should not be your spouse, because we have a different set of expectations with partners than we do with friends, so we might prioritize their own needs over ours.

If getting away from your family isn’t possible, then schedule a hangout at a playground or at your home, where your kids can play while you spend time with your friend. The in-person time is important, as we don’t get the same hormonal reaction from emails and Facebook groups as we do from interacting in the flesh.

4. Work through the emotional issues.
“You may have lingering emotions and anger issues with your parents, which can impede your ability to cope with your newfound caregiving responsibilities,” says Dolgen. This is understandable: Don’t we all have at least some issues with our parents? And once the roles are reversed and you’re nurturing and providing protection for your parents, old wounds can easily be reopened.

Dolgen says to “try to find ways to forgive, not just for your parents’ sake, but for your own health and well-being as well.” Doing this isn’t usually simple, so you may find it helpful to see a therapist who can guide you through the process.

5. Articulate your own needs.
It can be difficult for any of us to understand our own needs, let alone meet them. Trudeau swears by this technique: Take out a pen and paper, or open your computer, and ask: How do I feel? What do I need? What do I want? Answer each question based on your gut reaction, and aim to do this every day. All you need is a few minutes alone — in the parking lot, at your desk, even in the bathroom.

No one is watching, so you can be totally honest with yourself (this might appeal if you feel awkward talking to a therapist). Just knowing what you want and naming the feelings connected with those desires is a big step toward feeling whole.

6. Remember that alone time is not selfish — it’s necessary.
“Scheduling alone time is key,” says Dolgen, and the importance of “me time” is well documented.

“You’re worthless to others if you’re not fully alive and well,” says Trudeau. (Remember that airplane lesson: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.)

It’s okay if you don’t have time for a spa day. “Incremental self-care — a break for tea, a five-minute walk, some quick stretching or yoga — can be powerful,” says Trudeau.

Or you can go even simpler and focus on your breathing. Deep breathing can relieve stress, so try this exercise: Breathe in deeply through your nose for three counts, hold for three counts, and exhale for three counts. This can dramatically affect how you feel in minutes, Trudeau says. And you can do it anywhere, anytime.

Hiring outside help for just a few hours a week to take some time for yourself may be worth it. “Self-care is not about self-indulgence; it’s about self-preservation,” says Trudeau.

7. Ask for — and accept — help.
“Other people want to help. We’re all in this together,” says Trudeau. Asking for help isn’t always automatic, but you can teach yourself to ask for and receive it. This takes time, Trudeau says, “and it’s like building a muscle” — you have to keep working at it to build that strength.

An easy way to get started is to arrange a swap with a friend: You take care of her kids this Friday night, then she takes yours next Friday. It gets easier to ask the more you do it, and the bigger the network you build, the better.

If someone offers to bring over dinner or drive your mom to a doctor, say yes. You aren’t any weaker for accepting, and you can use that time to refill your energy stores and pay it forward.

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