Caregiving can bring forth an ever-changing kaleidoscope of emotions. These feelings are often bittersweet, but without the proper preparations and assistance, things can quickly skew towards bitter. Left unchecked, many of these emotions may lead to persistent guilt, depression, anxiety and caregiver burnout.

While counseling or therapy is recommended for people who are struggling with these negative feelings, many wish to handle such challenges on their own. Professional help can be extremely beneficial, but there are steps that caregivers can take by themselves to better handle the emotional challenges of caregiving and get more comfortable with the idea of seeking outside assistance.

Self-Care Is Not Selfish

Former graphic designer Koko Kawasaki, M.A., is no stranger to the importance of respite and self-care for caregivers. The experience of caring for her father, who suffered from multiple health issues, including stroke and vascular dementia, inspired her to earn her master’s degree in gerontology to help other families like hers.

Self-care tends to be one of the biggest challenges for those who are caring for ill and aging loved ones, but Kawasaki agrees that it is a necessity for wellness of the entire care team. Even though this is a need we all understand the importance of, there is something about caregiving that triggers guilt in anyone who yearns for a moment alone to pursue physical and mental healing.

“I initially did not think of caring for myself because I thought it would take time away from caring for my father,” Kawasaki admits. Determining how much time and effort to devote to oneself is a common dilemma for many family caregivers. Even when they allow themselves a marginal amount of respite, many fear they are being selfish with their already limited resources.

“In time, though,” Kawasaki, recalls, “I realized that if I didn’t make self-care a priority, my attitude and my ability to look after my father would both be negatively affected. In hindsight, I believe that making time for myself enhanced the caregiving experience for both of us.” This realization is a fundamental part of the care journey that comes too late for too many. Unfortunately, failing to recognize that your own health matters can have significant and often lasting physical and mental consequences.

There Are Many Pathways to Self-Care

There are many different types of self-care, and this concept means different things to each person. Caring for yourself can be an emotional, social, physical, spiritual, intellectual, sensory or purely pleasurable activity. Some people thrive on physical activities like hiking or running. Some enjoy mentally challenging pursuits that boost their self-confidence, such as reading or solving puzzles. Others prefer an emotional release like crying when they feel like it, journaling or using laughter as therapy.

As our responsibilities and relationships shift throughout our lives, the ways we prefer to recharge our batteries can change. Caregiving imposes limitations on time, energy and financial resources, causing many to abandon the hobbies and pastimes they previously enjoyed. Some of us search for new types of respite that fit better with our new routines, but the bottom line is that caregivers must establish some sort of realistic self-care regimen that works for them.

For example, Kawasaki’s daily self-care routine consisted of primarily physical and spiritual activities. “For exercise, I took brisk walks on most days, even if I had only 20 or 30 minutes of spare time. The physical activity helped me to decompress and I would feel better immediately,” she assures. “My spiritual practice was also a vital part of my self-care. As a Buddhist, I chant daily, and this practice helped me to stay focused yet flexible. It gave me spiritual nourishment that sustained me during the difficult times I faced as a caregiver. Other things I did to recharge included short weekend getaways with my spouse (when I could) and spending time having coffee or dinner with friends.”

Social Support for Caregivers

During her undergraduate studies, Kawasaki wanted to highlight the importance of social support systems for family members caring for aging loved ones. She developed a program called “Encircle” that utilizes community workshops and other resources to provide caregiver support.

“As the demand for caregiving grows, it places the population of family caregivers at risk for poor health, strained family relations, financial difficulties and lower quality of life for both caregivers and care recipients,” she explains. The goal of this experimental program was to break down caregiver support into fundamental pieces that caregivers could implement on their own, receive through community initiatives or both.

The Encircle program included:

  • Workshops on self-care, healthy eating and exercise
  • Neighborhood walk/talk groups
  • A “buddy system” with a fellow caregiver to provide respite and friendship
  • Phone check-ins with a buddy
  • A video library of funny comedy films to lift spirits
  • Positive incentives for healthy behaviors

While Encircle was an experimental program, there is hope that similar initiatives will begin to catch on around the country. They are certainly needed. Meanwhile, caregivers can use Encircle as a source of inspiration and accomplish some of these same objectives by connecting with fellow caregivers and seeking out community resources.

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Self-Care Ideas for Caregivers

No single approach works for everyone, but one or more of these suggestions may help you improve your quality of life. Choose some of the following ideas or use them as inspiration to create your own wellness program.

  • Mindfulness exercises like yoga, meditation and journaling can be soothing.
  • Practice art! Forget about being “good” at it and just express yourself. Get some supplies and let yourself go. Draw anger, draw depression, draw grief. Draw what would make you happy. The process of releasing your feelings in a visual way is very cathartic. Adult coloring books are another popular stress reliever for those who prefer to place more emphasis on a simple creative outlet to de-stress.
  • Listen to music that relaxes you, music that brings out the emotions you’re feeling or music that helps you recall a simpler time. Learn to play an instrument that you’ve always wanted to play. Again, being “good” isn’t the point. This is about doing an activity you might enjoy and that shifts your focus to something constructive and personally rejuvenating.
  • Games and smart phone applications for emotional health abound on the internet. Browse to see if you find something that is appealing to you. Many of these are meant to relieve stress, anxiety, anger and self-doubt.
  • Positive self-talk training is available for free and through paid subscriptions online. Many mental health professionals have written books and created other learning materials to help individuals adopt this important coping mechanism. It’s all about shifting away from negative thoughts and feelings and improving the ways in which you perceive the world and its many challenges.
  • Physical stress relief can come in many forms. Handheld stress toys and gadgets, like those used in occupational therapy, can provide comfort anywhere. Exercise programs, such as a gym membership, walking outdoors or using a video for guidance, can help you feel healthier and more in tune with life. Even if you aren’t concerned with getting in shape or losing weight, staying active provides a constructive outlet for pent up emotions.
  • Do something for someone else. This can mean volunteering at a place that feeds the homeless, donating clothing for those who need job interview outfits, or teaching crafting ideas or gardening to others who could benefit from learning a therapeutic skill. Although caregivers tend to have little free time, giving back to the community can expand your social networks, allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and help you find purpose outside of caregiving. Contact local organizations or your community center for more ideas.
  • Pets can be a wonderful source of joy for caregivers and seniors alike, but don’t adopt one unless you truly have the time to devote to properly caring for and training an animal. If you’re in need of some pet therapy but don’t have the resources for one of your own, you can always visit local rescue groups or shelters to play with cats or walk dogs. Temporary foster homes are often in demand as well. Spending time with animals can be a great stress reducer and socialization is crucial for adoptability, so your service is a win-win.
  • Attend a support group. There’s nothing like being part of a group of people who understand exactly what you are going through. These groups exist both in person and online and can focus on any range of topics, including caring for someone with dementia or Parkinson’s disease, cancer, bereavement, substance use, and much more. Your local Area Agency on Aging should be able to provide you with a list of community groups and their meeting information.

Make a Commitment to Care for Yourself

Developing and sticking to a self-care routine may seem like a chore at first, but perseverance and flexibility are crucial. If something doesn’t work at first, try once more or change your approach entirely. As long as you are taking time to do something for yourself, it shouldn’t be seen as a hassle or a failure. The goal is self-care, not self-improvement. You are important; believe that you are worth the time.

Never forget that professional counseling is always an option. Self-care works for many of us, but when thoughts and feelings become too dark and overwhelming, the right counselor can help you find your way again. Regardless of how you go about it, the key message is that you must be kind to yourself. Your well-being and that of your care recipient depend on it.