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Family Caregiver Stress – Part I

Tips for managing your physical health while caring for an aging family member

With Americans living longer lives and often needing assistance to ensure their well-being, more people are providing care for an aging family member. New additions to our vocabulary like ‘sandwich generation’ and ‘caregiver stress,’ have emerged from this reality.

Though caring for an elder can offer emotional rewards, it can be a physically demanding undertaking that takes its toll on the caregiver.  Not only do the physical strains effect the helper, but they can also impact the quality of care you offer to a loved one.

Responsibilities for elder care can be stressful, especially when added to an already demanding lifestyle. ‘Sandwich’ aptly describes caring for an aging family member, frequently a parent or parents, while at the same time maintaining responsibility for one’s own school aged children. Having a job outside of the home contributes to the fatigue that comes from such a “full plate.”

Caregiver stress may also diminish the capacity to attend to other family members whose needs are ever-present. It is vital, therefore, for a caregiver to keep the stress in check in order to maintain personal well-being and effectiveness.

Secret Weapon:  Planning Ahead

Even if your care giving role came upon you suddenly, planning for how to care for yourself is a step in the right direction.

Eat wisely and well. By taking some thoughtful steps, you will avoid poor eating patterns that often stem for periods of unpredictable stress. One-in-three caregivers report having gained or lost weight after assuming the role.  Here are some tips for maintaining normal and healthful eating, even in seemingly abnormal circumstances:

Make use of the freezer and microwave: Prepare food in quantities large enough to portion out; label and put containers in the freezer for future meals. An all-in-one meal like a soup or stew with meat, beans and vegetables is ideal for freezing and heating in the microwave. By freezing a variety of meals you will provide yourself with a choice to suit your mood and time limitations. This is a small but helpful way to balance out restrictions on your time and mobility that may come with care giver responsibilities.

Prepare healthy meals and snacks in advance and keep them handy: Keeping yourself well nourished keeps energy levels up and your mood even. Take a little time to prepare some healthy snacks that you can grab on the go and fill containers or plastic bags with portions of cut up fruits and vegetables. This also helps you to avoid less healthy and higher calorie snacks that are packaged for easy grab and go when time is limited.

Improve your sleep habits: Establish a sleep-wake cycle by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Avoid caffeinated beverages in the hours before bedtime and don’t drink alcohol before bedtime since it can disrupt sleep. If the person you are caring for takes a daytime nap, that may be an opportunity for you to take a power nap as well. After a 15-20 minute nap (set an alarm) you will feel refreshed and energized.  Be conscious, however, if this mid-day nap disrupts your nighttime sleep cycle.

Make time to exercise: Getting exercise each day also contributes to better sleep and better stress management. Get out of doors and take a walk. The fresh air and change of scenery will be beneficial.  It also provides some “alone time,” a rare commodity for the overworked caregiver.  Use the senior’s nap time, or their TV viewing time to stretch, do yoga or simple calisthenics to keep your energy up.  The sense of pride we all take in making time for exercise contributes to those feelings of well-being we’ve already referenced.

Schedule regular medical checkups: Often, caring for others forces us to put our own medical care aside for more acute situations at home.  It is essential if you have a condition that requires monitoring and medication (such as high blood pressure or diabetes) that you maintain your own medical practices and appointments. Stress can exacerbate certain conditions, so making to attend them is good insurance. And make sure to schedule time that annual flu shot.

Taking steps to avoid the imposing effects of stress may seem like adding more to-dos to your already filled agenda, but they can enable a caregiver to maintain strength, energy and a positive outlook over the long haul.

If you can’t do the needed care-taking all on your own, or are at risk of burnout, get some relief for yourself.  Even an afternoon off can be restorative and prepare you for a long night ahead.

Subscribe to the HWS Elder Care blog to receive or next installment: Family Caregiver Stress – Part II: Tips for managing mental and emotional health while caring for an aging family member

Other Resources:

Family Caregiver Stress – Part II
FAQ: Privately Employed Senior Caregivers
Payroll for Privately Employed Senior Caregivers
Companionship Care: Minimum Wage and Overtime by State
Overtime Rules for Senior Caregivers

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