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Caregiver to caregiver: The advice that helped me most
Helping out a family member or friend who has a health issue? Here’s how to manage it and take care of yourself in the process.
Being a caregiver can feel like a full-time job. Because it is one. And these days, it’s something that a lot of people do. In fact, more than 1 in 5 Americans provide some type of caregiving to an adult or child, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1
Maybe you’re providing daily care for a parent with a health condition like dementia. That could mean helping them get dressed, eat regular meals or take their medications.
Or you might be helping with driving a friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer to their doctor’s visits. You’re not doing it every day, but changes in your routine and extra time away from home can drain your energy.
Caregiving often demands a big heart, patience, and both physical and emotional energy. So it’s easy to understand why caregivers can end up feeling overwhelmed.2
Below, we’ve asked caregivers just like you to share their top five pieces of advice.
1. Do things for yourself
Think about what you need to be the best caregiver you can be. In other words, put yourself first.
That might sound like the opposite of being selfless. But if you don’t make room for your own needs, you won’t have the energy to help others. That’s according to Washington, DC-based Julia Beck, who, along with her two sisters, cares for her mother in Philadelphia.
“Prioritize your well-being,” says Beck. “The intensity of what is required leaves little room for self-care.”
The stress of being a caregiver can take its toll. It can increase your risk of depression and anxiety.2 Nearly 1 in 5 caregivers report fair or poor health, according to the CDC.1 It may also make you more prone to getting sick or developing chronic health conditions.2
That’s why it’s important to give yourself what you need, Beck adds. This could include:
- Keeping a regular coffee date with a friend who makes you laugh
- Making time for your weekly exercise class
- Taking a shower (or bath) every day
- Practicing mindfulness or meditation for a few minutes
Even these small things can help you feel refreshed and restored. They can make you feel more like yourself, even during the most trying times.
Try to keep up with hobbies that bring you joy and fulfillment. It’s normal for your own activities to take a back seat when you’re caring for others.
Maybe you were a big reader before you became a caregiver. Now you don’t have time to sit down for an hour with a book. Instead, try listening to audio books while you’re out for a walk or commuting to work. You can keep it up, but in different ways.
Another option to consider? Getting help at home from outside providers. A 2023 survey by Optum showed that caregivers are interested in having medical care come to the person they care for.3 For example, let’s say you’re caring for a parent. If they’re on Medicare, they may be covered for in-home physical therapy or visiting nurse services.4 This can save the time and stress of getting your parent to an appointment, and give you some space to recharge.
Find mental health resources that fit with your life. Work one-on-one with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.
2. Divide up your work
Even if you’re the main caregiver, other people can lend a hand. For example, lean on your family or close friends to help with tasks such as:1
- Folding laundry
- Scheduling appointments
- Sorting pills
- Shopping for groceries
Beck says that breaking up the different tasks eases the burden on just one person. “There is always support to be had,” she says. “Find and use what you have.”
Take, for example, Elizabeth Shaw’s family. Her mother-in-law has leukemia. (That’s a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.5) Each family member pitches in to take care of her. “I’ve been the main contact for all her doctors, helping to collect and share information with the rest of the family,” says Shaw, who’s based in Rye, New York.
Her husband and his siblings have taken the lead on other duties. These include:
- Coordinating home care schedules
- Keeping her finances in order
- Scheduling appointments
“Each person has a lane that makes it easier to get things done,” Shaw says.
Technology can help divide up those duties too. That might include using a provider’s online scheduling, virtual appointments and prescription management tools. That can make it a lot easier for multiple people to manage a single loved one’s (or friend’s) care.
3. Let honesty rule
The person you’re caring for may try to downplay how they’re feeling. Maybe it’s hard for them to come to grips with their health issues. Maybe they don’t want to be a burden, so they keep quiet about any discomfort or aches and pains.
But silence can make it harder for you to address their needs. So help them be open. When you know what they’re dealing with, you can do more to help, Shaw notes.
“We gently remind my mother-in-law that it’s important to be honest about her symptoms or pain,” she says. “We also remind her that it’s OK to say that she’s scared, worried or stressed.”
One idea for keeping the lines of communication open? Try doing a casual check-in twice a day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Another: Do a weekly check-in with a list of issues.
Whatever you decide, be encouraging and empathetic. You want the person you’re caring for to feel comfortable, so that they’ll be honest about their needs.
4. Connect with others
Being a caregiver can feel isolating.2 Connecting with others can help you feel less alone.
“Find the support you need through friendships, organizations or therapy,” Beck says. “Anything that strengthens your ability.”
Here are some options:
- Check with your health plan. They may have licensed social workers who can help you find support groups.
- Find a caregiver support group. You can find them in most communities. Do a quick search online or on social media to discover your options.
- Reach out to your close confidants. Text a trusted friend when your stress starts to get the better of you. A few words of strength can help you power through a tough moment.
- Find a therapist to help you manage your emotions.6 Using talk therapy, they can help you work through any feelings you have about the responsibility that comes with caregiving.4
5. Take it minute by minute
The most consistent thing about being a caregiver? It’s completely inconsistent. Every day or even every hour, something will be different.
A quiet morning doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the day will go as smoothly. Managing your expectations as a caregiver is important for your own well-being.
If the person you’re caring for has a chronic condition, they’ll likely have ups and downs at certain times of the day. For example, early evening can be difficult for a person with Alzheimer’s.7 That’s a type of dementia that causes memory loss.6 Some people with Alzheimer’s experience sundowner’s syndrome, a type of confusion that may make them agitated, feel more anxiety, and wander or pace in the evening.7
Or let’s say the person you’re caring for is getting chemotherapy. That’s a type of cancer treatment. They may feel exhausted after their treatment.9 “There are going to be times when a long-term condition is especially tough,” Shaw says. “It really is OK to just focus on getting through the next five minutes.”
There’s no doubt that being a caregiver can be challenging. And it can be different from person to person. But one thing is clear: It’s not just about supporting others. It’s about supporting yourself. That can make all the difference.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Supporting Caregivers. Last reviewed November 22, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Caregiver Stress. Last updated August 14, 2023. Accessed September 14, 2023.
- “Optum Consumer Health Needs” internal survey. Published October 2023.
- Medicare.gov. Home Health Services. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Leukemia. Last updated May 30, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2023.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Psychotherapies. Last reviewed January 2023. Accessed September 14, 2023.
- Alzheimer’s Association. Sleep Issues and Sundowning. Accessed September 14, 2023.
- Alzheimer’s Association. What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? Accessed September 14, 2023.
- American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy Side Effects. Last updated May 1, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2023.
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