Have you noticed that “self-care” has become one of those buzzwords everyone is using? In fact, between 2019 and 2020, Google Search Trends shows a 250% increase in searches using the term. It’s not like self-care is a new concept. It seems to be on everyone’s mind lately. The chaos of the last few years have brought to life the importance of protecting and promoting our mental and physical health.
However, 1 in 4 Americans (28%) feel guilty when practicing self-care. Why? Because they don’t think they have the time (44%) or the money for it (35%). But what about those Americans who are taking care of loved ones daily? Without a doubt, caregivers are probably the most in need of self-care. It can be very stressful to care for aging or sick family members. But are caregivers taking the time or money to take care of themselves?
Who are Caregivers?
More than 1 in 5 Americans (21.3%) are caregivers, which means they provide care to an adult or child with special needs. This is about 53 million adults in the United States, up from an estimated 43.5 million in 2015. There are over 8 million adults providing care to a family member or friend age 18 or older, which spotlights a significant increase in adults caring for someone over 50 since 2015. What is even more interesting is that older caregivers tend to take care of similarly aged adults, with 74% of caregivers age 75 and older caring for a similarly aged family member or friend. Compared to the stat reporting that 1 in 4 folks feel guilty about practicing self-care, you can assume there is a tremendous cross-over.
Actually, there was a study done in 2017 to see if this was true. Entitled, “The Self-Care Practices of Family Caregivers of Persons with Poor Prognosis Cancer: Differences by Varying Levels of Caregiver Well-being and Preparedness“, the study found strong associations between low engagement in all self-care practices and the worst caregiver anxiety, depression, and mental scores. The findings show that these caregivers were either not willing or able to practice activities that would sustain their health. Adding to this insight was the additional discovery that approximately 1 in 4 caregivers reported clinically high depression and low mental health scores, and 1 in 3 reported borderline or high anxiety scores.
The 2017 study is not the only time caregivers have reported physical, emotional, and financial strain. A 2021 study by Genworth showed that 51% of all caregivers reported that caregiving affected their personal health and well-being negatively because they had less time or inclination to take care of themselves. As a result, they were more susceptible to mood swings, depression, sleep deprivation, resentment and other negative feelings, and weight gain, which increase the risk of medical issues like heart disease and diabetes.
There is a name for this potentially deadly issue. Caregiver stress syndrome is strongly associated with negative health outcomes. Here is a list of just a few.
- 40 – 70% of caregivers report having depression and anxiety;
- 45% suffer from chronic conditions, including heart attacks, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis;
- Caregivers have 23% more stress hormones and 15% fewer antibody responses than normal;
- 10% admit they feel physical stress from the daily tasks of physically assisting their family member;
- Women who spend 9 or more hours a week caring for a spouse increased their risk of heart disease by 100%
Caregivers are an essential piece of the aging puzzle for many of us as we live longer and the costs of aging increase. We as a society need to ensure that we are encouraging caregivers to take care of themselves while they take care of others.
Signs of Stress
As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don’t realize your health and well-being are suffering. Here are some signs to watch for:
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling tired often
- Feeling isolated
- Having difficulty relaxing
- Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
- Gaining or losing weight quickly
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Neglecting other responsibilities
- Having frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems
- Having a poor appetite or overeating
- Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
If you or a caregiver you know notice any of these signs, please consider going to your doctor for a health check and, if your doctor agrees, engage in the self-care suggestions in this blog.
Self-care is not being selfish. Self-care is taking care of yourself, so you can care for those who depend on you. The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”. Inherent in the concept is an individual acts (or does not act) on behalf of themselves to stay healthy or respond to health symptoms.
Self-care is anything one person does to take care of themselves to stay physically, mentally, and emotionally well. Self-care requires a certain level of self-awareness and understanding of what one’s body and mind need. Because each person’s body and mind need different things at different times, each person will require and adopt different self-care practices, and even that person’s needs may change over time. Here are a few examples of self-care:
- Emotional self-care: Journaling, daily self-reflection time, saying “no” to things that cause unnecessary stress, or setting up a weekly coffee date with a friend;
- Mental self-care: Doing crossword puzzles, reading, or meditating;
- Physical self-care: Prioritizing sleep, exercising, eating healthy foods, or regular doctor check-ups.
Self-care is an individualized endeavor, made up of practices that make you feel strong and well. What activities would do that for you?
Every caregiver should focus on taking care of themselves. First and foremost, every caregiver must schedule regular appointments with their doctors. This may include seeing a primary care doctor, counselor or therapist, medical specialist, or alternative medicine specialist. This is critical. Do this before you do anything else. When you meet with your medical professionals, talk openly about your caregiving and how it affects your mental, physical, and emotional health. Use that time to strategize with them on which self-care practices would be best for you.
Here are some general recommendations for caregivers to practice every day.
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Drink water every day
- Exercise at least three times a week
- Listen to favorite music or podcasts
- Listen to guided meditations
- Schedule short rest periods between activities
- Make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep
- Don’t overload your daily to-do list
- Schedule activities you enjoy for a few hours several times a week
- Ask for help with daily meals, household chores or shopping, and childcare
- Keep the lines of communication open among your family and your loved one’s health care team
- Pay attention to changes in your mood. If you lose interest in your favorite activities or feel unable to accomplish daily tasks, share your feelings with family members or other caregivers.
- Write down your feelings in a journal
- Join a support group
- See a therapist
- Schedule a respite/time away from caregiving
- Give yourself credit. The care you give does make a difference
These are just a few suggestions for self-care. Only you know what you need, and you have the right and the duty to take care of yourself. The people who depend on you need you. Practicing self-care will help you stay healthy and strong for them and yourself.
If you would like to learn more about self-care for caregivers, here is a list of resources to review.