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Mental Wellness: Self-Care for Caregivers

Our Journey to a Healthier You series continues this month with a discussion on mental wellness. We last covered mental wellness in June of 2016 and defined it as how your thoughts, behaviors, reactions and emotions determine how you perceive yourself and your presence in your community. This month, we are going to hone in on a specific topic within mental wellness: self-care for caregivers.

Depending on the level of care required, being a caregiver can either be a full-time job or done in addition to a person’s other responsibilities. Some people may even find themselves in the “sandwich generation” role – raising their children while also being responsible for the care of an aging parent. Whether it is a parent who has fallen ill, a sibling who has been in an accident, a child who has special needs or another situation entirely, being a caregiver can be tiresome and emotionally draining. Caregivers are often untrained and unprepared for their role and may have little support from other family members or the community. The Family Caregiving Alliance has identified several negative consequences that can impact caregivers’ mental and emotional wellness:

  • Caregivers report higher levels of depression; depressed caregivers are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and/or substance use disorders.
  • Caregivers suffer, often in silence, from high levels of stress and frustration. Stressed caregivers report lower levels of life satisfaction and may exhibit hostility towards others.
  • Not surprisingly, caregivers don’t take very good care of their own health compared to their non-caregiving counterparts, as their primary focus is on their loved one. They seek preventive health care less often, delay medical treatment, don’t fill prescriptions, exercise less, eat less healthy foods, smoke more and turn to alcohol to self-soothe.

By making themselves a priority and practicing self-care, caregivers will be better equipped to provide care and more likely to report a higher quality of life. Self-care involves any activity that you voluntarily engage in that benefits your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social well-being. In short, it’s any activity done for you that makes you feel good. Below are some ideas to get you started on the path to self-care.

  1. Take a personal inventory of your own self-care. Ask yourself why you’re not taking care of yourself as well you could be. Do you feel guilty if you put yourself first? Now ask yourself how good of a caregiver you’ll be if you get sick? Questions like these can help you recognize the importance of taking good care of yourself.
  1. Set goals. It is important as a caregiver to have a life independent from your loved one. This serves as a reminder that you have an identity beyond being a caregiver.
  1. Manage stress. Stress is your body’s way of perceiving and responding to a situation. The amount of stress you experience is often dependent on your coping skills. You have two options to deal with stress: either change the situation or change your reaction to the situation. Take time to find out how you respond to stress and identify ways to manage it effectively.
  1. Exercise. Exercise has been proven to lower stress levels, improve cardiovascular health, improve bone density and lower cancer risk. People who consistently exercise experience less chronic pain, better sleep, improved brain function and a stronger immune system. A previous Journey to a Healthier You article on physical wellness in the October 2016 issue of Lifelines discussed how much exercise you should engage in each week.
  1. Sleep. When your days are packed with going from one appointment to the next, getting more than a few hours of sleep may sound like a luxury, but it’s a luxury you should indulge in. This may take time and practice, but set yourself up for success by creating a bedtime routine and aim to go to sleep at the same time every day.
  1. Seek support. No man (or woman) is an island. Family members, friends, local support groups and professional assistance from a Member Assistance Program or therapist are all outlets that can provide emotional support (making someone feel cared for and providing a sense of belonging), physical support (tangible support that provides aid or assistance) or informational support (information, intellectual property or guidance).

[Emily Smith is the Health Promotion Division’s Senior Benefit & Wellness Specialist.]

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