Most of you know that I’ve been helping to take care of my mom since her stroke 30 months ago. Those first few months were nothing short of horrendous. I didn’t know the stress I was under and that one of my biggest lessons would be to avoid caregiver burnout.
According to AARP, as many as 41 million of us are caring for our adult family members. It’s not a role I ever planned for so I was completely unaware of the stress created by caring for an aging parent. Thirty-six percent of family caregivers characterize their situation as highly stressful, according to the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC). No one tells you how to avoid caregiver burnout.
And I’m here to tell you that it is real! I was living on wine and mini Dove bars (if I ate at all).
My days were spent shuttling back and forth between my mom’s nursing home and dealing with emails and client work. It was incredibly stressful but I was just going through the motions.
It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital with a panic attack that it hit me like a ton of bricks: In my quest to take care of my mom, I was NOT taking care of myself. So I hired a health coach and buckled down and decided to put my health first. I’ve learned a few things on this unanticipated journey and wanted to share some of the ways I’ve learned to focus on myself.
5 ways to avoid caregiver burnout
1. Morning routine – Trust me, you need one. Before, I was waking up and rushing out the door to feed my mom breakfast. After my little hospital stay, I began taking a leisurely walk with the dog around a beautiful lake just to start the day on my terms.
2. Exercise – No matter what it is, you need to move. Even a brisk morning walk will do wonders for your mind. Being a caregiver definitely takes a lot of mental and physical energy so I’d recommend getting your exercise in early in the day. I enrolled in a morning yoga class and that became my priority. I could take care of myself in the morning and be with my mom for lunch.
3. Clean up your diet and eat light – Sustaining yourself on chocolate and ice cream bars will do a number on you! I just didn’t have the energy or creativity to cook so I began subscribing to a plant-based meal delivery service, Purple Carrot. I’d make one of the meals for dinner and would have enough left over for lunch the next day. This is probably my single most important tip. Eating light and healthy when your body is under so much stress really does make you feel so much better.
4. Sleep hygiene – This goes without saying. Getting enough sleep is as important for your mind as it is for your body. Sleep is when all of your body’s functions restore and reset themselves. So if your body is not at rest, this doesn’t happen. Make your nighttime routine something special (blog post coming soon on this). Buy fancy new pajamas. Purchase a soothing lavender hand lotion and use it at bedtime. Buy the silkiest sheets you can find. Find the best way for your mind to unwind at night whether it’s reading a book, journaling or watching your favorite cooking show (this worked for me!).
5. Talk it out – I share my frustrations and (rare) triumphs with anyone who will listen, even the checker at the grocery store. Sometimes it just helps to say it out loud, or to get an occasional, “I’m sorry. I hope your day gets better.” I think you’ll be surprised to hear how many people can empathize with those of us who are caregivers. I’ve turned to a friend who was a caregiver for her own mother and can certainly offer me solace and advice. My girlfriends are always there to pull me out of my slump with a night out wine tasting. My kids lift me up when they call and ask how I am. And my (poor) husband, just has to let me vent sometimes.
If you are or have ever been a caregiver, please share in the comments some ways you’ve found to avoid burnout. I’d love to serve as a resource for others by offering more tips and ideas for caring for ourselves first.