One of the most difficult aspects of caring for a loved one is finding a window of time to look after yourself too.
When tired, stressed, or busy, the last thing most of us feel like is exercising or cooking a healthy meal.
There are other reasons that carers neglect to look after themselves, too, whether it be their belief they should be providing all the care themselves, the idea they don’t deserve a break, putting their own needs last, or simply it’s all too hard to do something new.
But carers must prioritise their own wellbeing. Caring is both physically and emotionally challenging, and carers have to remain strong, resilient and healthy so they remain up to the task.
Research casts a light on just how important it is that carers take care of themselves. People between the ages of 66 and 96 who are caring for spouse and experiencing mental or emotional strain have a 63 per cent higher risk of dying than people the same age who are not caregivers.
Here are 10 ways carers can look after themselves when they are caring for a loved one.
1. Get help
Just because you are caring for someone you love doesn’t mean you have to do it all yourself.
Reach out to friends and family to find out if they can help, even if it’s just spending an hour or two with the care recipient, or taking them out for a coffee – just enough time to give you a break to run errands, do some exercise, or take a nap if that’s what you need to do.
Find out what government funded help you are entitled to. Are their services available from your local council? What respite care is available in your local area?
2. Take a ‘breather’
Even amid the chaos of a busy day, it’s possible to take a few minutes of time out to take three or four deep, slow breaths.
Breathe in through your nose as deeply as you can, right down into your diaphragm. As you breathe in, count slowly count to four. Hold your breath for a second, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth, again slowly counting to four. Make a blowing sound as you exhale, imagine blowing out through a straw.
This is a well-known breathing relaxation technique and helps to lower stress levels. This video might help.
3. Get plenty of sleep
Being a carer is often a 24-hour responsibility, and that can mean your sleep is interrupted. Being deprived of sleep can have a negative impact not only on a carer’s health and wellbeing, but also on their ability to continue successfully caring for their loved one.
Sleep reduces tension and can relieve the symptoms of depression, it increases your energy levels, and makes you more alert.
Go to bed early, and nap when the care recipient naps, rather than using the time to catch up on chores.
4. Eat and drink well
Eat small, regular snacks and meals, rather than a couple of large meals throughout the day. This will mean your are regularly topping up your energy levels, and you won’t be calling on your body to consume precious energy digesting large meals.
Try to eat a healthy diet made of of plenty of plant-based foods and protein, including nuts, legumes, cheese and yoghurt.
Remember to drink lots of water throughout the day, too.
5. Keep active
Keeping active doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon or take spin classes, but frequent exercise has proven health benefits, including lowering both cholesterol and blood pressure. Exercise also helps to maintain a positive mood and gives you energy, and will help you sleep better at night.
Walking is an easy and accessible way to exercise, and even 10 minutes of walking a day can reap benefits. Walk around the block, or to the local shops or park, or to see a friend. Try to weave walking into your daily routine.
Housework and gardening can also help you to stay active, relieving stress and boosting your mood.
6. Stay connected
Profound loneliness is a common feature in the lives of carers. Pick up the phone to keep in touch with friends, and if you can, organise times to catch up.
Technology can help too – video calls with friends and families who can’t be there in person are a great way to stay connected and ease feelings of social isolation.
Joining support groups for carers – whether online or in person – can also help you connect with people who share the common bond of caring for a loved one.
7. Spend time in nature
The benefits of spending time in nature are well established. Even the smallest actions can connect us with the natural world and improve our mood and sense of wellbeing.
Look out the window at the sky. Step out into the garden. Take a walk around the block. Visit the local park. Take a day out and go for a bushwalk with friends or family.
Gardening, even if it’s as simple as growing herbs in the kitchen, can be a way to connect with the natural world.
8. Don’t feel guilty about taking some time for yourself
Being a carer can be physically and emotionally tiring and stressful.
Carers should look upon any time they take for themselves as a way of recharging their batteries, so that they come back refreshed and energised, healthy, happy and strong enough to return to both the challenges and the rewards of caring for a loved one.
Carers provide a vital service in Australia.
In 2015, there were more than 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia – that figure is likely to be even higher today. Of those carers, 856,000 are primary carers, or the person who provides the most care to the care recipient.
Almost all carers – 96 per cent – are looking after a family member. More than one-third of all primary carers (35 per cent) provide 40 or more hours of care per week.
It is estimated that the replacement value of the work unpaid carers do would be $60.3 billion, or more than $1 billion every week.
Please note: This article should not be considered as medical advice. Please take your own abilities and circumstances into account when reading, and consult your doctor if you have further questions and if you think your require additional support.