Dementia caregivers often sacrifice sleep, personal time, self care, and exercise to meet the needs of their loved one. We keep waiting for more hours in the day, and we’re always looking ahead to that perpetual “someday” when we will take better care of ourselves. Female caregivers are routinely expected to value the needs of others ahead of ourselves, but male dementia caregivers can also fall into the same self-sacrificing habits.
Your days are long enough, without worrying about counting calories, hours of sleep, and routine medical check-ups on top of everything else. It may even feel selfish to make time for yoga or a hair appointment when your loved one is struggling with the tasks of day-to-day living. Do you feel guilty asking others for help unless it’s “something really important?”
Each of these seemingly innocent decisions — the skipped doctor’s appointment, the canceled lunch with a friend, staying up late, and an extra glass of wine — can contribute to chronic illness, depression, anxiety and caregiver burnout. Moreover, all of these issues multiply and compound on themselves until you don’t know where one begins and the other ends.
The solution to this may seem selfish and difficult to achieve, but it’s also necessary.
You have to take care of yourself first.
Caregivers who read books, exercise, meditate, socialize with friends, ask for help, and attend to their own physical needs report lower incidences of all the risk factors mentioned above. If you’re a longtime caregiver, placing your own needs at the top of the list might seem radical in the beginning — even uncomfortable. If that sounds like you, then start small. A walk around the block (or even just up and down the driveway). One minute of meditation several times a day. And if you miss a day, be quick to forgive yourself. Today is the perfect day to start again.
When you’re filling out your calendar or planner, block off time for yourself. Consider what habits help you feel strong, rested, healthy, or resilient. Make at least one of those things a self care for caregiver habits non-negotiable on your to-do list. Plan around it. Tell people “my sanity depends on it” when they try to infringe on that time. When it comes to self care for caregivers, we’re not just talking lavender bubble baths and pampered pedicures — we’re talking about survival skills.
If nothing else, you should be asking yourself one simple question at least once a day or whenever you feel stressed. No matter what else happens, taking time to answer this question can help lower your heart rate and decrease your cortisol levels.
“What do I need right now?”
As often as possible, stop and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” It almost doesn’t matter if the thing you realize that you need is out of reach at the moment. You are taking care of yourself (and your loved one) by pausing long enough to check in with yourself. Self care. The act of truly caring about yourself, is the first step to being a healthy dementia caregiver.
Have you thought about what you need today? We’d love to know. Visit the Mindful Caregiver blog to keep up with Emily, who shares her own journey about trying to take care of herself and spouse Tracey. You can also connect with the Gloria’s Way community on Facebook and Instagram to join the conversation.