Self-care for the Caregiver

Woman in blue towel gets scalp massage

Up to 75 percent of non-professional caregivers are women. They're the wives and mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law, sisters and friends, of loved ones with a variety of medical conditions. And while the experience can build strength and resilience, it can also take a serious toll on their health. 

That's one reason why OHSU offers support and counseling to the family members who care for some of our sickest patients. Susan Hedlund, social worker and manager of Patient and Family Support Services at the Knight Cancer Institute, oversees a team that provides this support. 

"For people who take on the task of physical caregiving, there are much higher levels of depression and anxiety," says Hedlund. 

There are effects on physical health too. Like increased blood pressure, impaired immune function, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  

9 tips for caregivers 

Caregiving is challenging, but there are ways to lessen the impact to your health and stay in touch with the rewarding part. Check out these great tips from Hedlund. 

1. Reward yourself with a break. 

"It's not uncommon to go from feeling extremely driven to hitting the wall," says Hedlund. "Take breaks often, even when you think you don't need one." 

Frequent breaks will protect your health and keep you from getting overwhelmed. 

2. Watch out for depression. 

20 to 50 percent of caregivers report having symptoms of depression and the rate is even higher for those caring for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.  

Don't wait to get help if you have any symptoms of depression. These include feeling empty and hopeless, lacking interest in things you used to enjoy, lacking energy and changes in your sleep or appetite. 

In addition to therapy or medical treatment, there are ways you can cope with depression, including regular exercise and more sleep. 

3. When help is offered, accept it. 

"Well-intentioned people say, 'Let me know what I can do,'" says Hedlund. "If you give a specific answer, that will make it happen. Ask them to bring a meal, mow the lawn, or run to the store for you." 

CaringBridge is a great way to coordinate help, and also keep your family and friends up to date. 

4. Educate yourself. 

Make sure you understand your loved one's condition. Talk with their doctors frequently, and don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have. 

5. Promote your loved one's independence. 

There are all sorts of products and ideas that may help your loved one do some things on their own. Be open to things like chairs for the shower or for getting up and down stairs. 

6. Allow yourself to grieve, and to dream. 

Whether you become a caregiver gradually or suddenly, you need to grieve –for the loss of your former life, but also for the loss you may feel due to the changing relationship with your loved one. 

"Often you lose the person before you actually lose them, especially in diseases that cause cognitive changes," says Hedlund. 

It's also important to think about the future. Caregiving is a big part of your life, but that doesn't mean you can't dream new dreams. Your new perspective may even add new facets to your wishes and goals. 

7. Seek support from other caregivers. 

"When someone is first sick, there's usually a well-spring of support from family and friends," Hedlund says. But after months or years, isolation is common for both patients and caregivers." 

Know that you aren't alone. Seek out a support group for caregivers, or talk to a counselor. 

8. Be good to your back. 

Caregivers spend a lot of time lifting, pushing, and pulling. Take care of your back and seek treatment for any pain. 

9. Prioritize self-care. 

"Many caregivers don't take time for themselves," says Hedlund. "They postpone their own doctor's appointments. They postpone their own wellness." 

You have rights, as a caregiver and as a human being. These include the right to take care of yourself –physically, emotionally and socially. You can't give to someone else when you are depleted. Make sure you are doing what you need to fill your tank. 

For more resources on caregiving, visit the National Alliance for Caregiving and the Family Caregiver Alliance websites.