In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that over 10% of Australians were caring for someone due to disability or older age. Over 70% of those carers said they took up their caring role due to a sense of family responsibility.
Caring for a family member each day over many weeks, months or years is a true labour of love. Most of the time, you put that person’s wellbeing first, delaying or ignoring your own needs so you can meet theirs.
But you can’t do that indefinitely. You, too, need food, sleep, exercise and companionship. You can’t go without those things for too long without running into health issues of your own.
Why you need to care for yourself too
It’s probably been a while since you last flew on an aeroplane but do you remember the safety advice at the start of each flight? Parents are always told that, if there’s any loss of oxygen in the cabin, they should fit their own oxygen masks before fitting their children’s.
That might go against parental instinct but it makes sense – if the parent passes out from lack of oxygen, the child is at risk whereas if the parent fits their own mask and continues breathing, they can easily support their child.
Long-term caring for a loved one is a bit like that. What happens to the person you care for if you become mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted? And what happens to you?
If you’re experiencing carer burnout, you may:
- Withdraw from friends, family and other loved ones
- Lose interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Feel sad, irritable, hopeless and helpless
- Experience changes in appetite
- Gain or lose weight
- Have changes in your sleep patterns
- Get sick more often
- Experience intense feelings like wanting to hurt yourself or the person you’re caring for
- Be emotionally and physically exhausted.
To sustain yourself for long-haul caring, you need to take care of your own needs too. You benefit from taking regular time for yourself. It gives you chance to:
- Maintain important relationships
- Access counselling to help you process your feelings about your situation
- Stay fit and healthy through exercise and a healthy diet
- Get to your own medical appointments to stay on top of any chronic conditions or mental health needs
- Improve your mood through the natural feel-good hormones released during and after exercise
- Get a good night’s sleep.
The person you’re caring for also benefits from having a carer who is refreshed. Being cared for by other people on a regular basis also helps your loved one get used to other carers. That familiarity can be very helpful if you have an emergency or if you decide to take some time to explore a new interest or attend a special event.
5 simple ways to look after yourself
Let’s be real – nothing’s ‘simple’ when you’re caring for a family member who is old, frail, ill or has a disability. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s impossible to find any avenues for self-care. With a bit of planning and determination, there are things you can do to take care of yourself. Here are 5 ideas.
1. Exercise regularly
Exercise is a wonderful way to boost your mood, gain more energy and improve your sleep. It also helps to prevent or manage a host of chronic health conditions.
Getting into the habit of regular exercise involves finding a form of physical activity that you enjoy then making time to do it. Try to make it as easy as possible. You could:
- Go for a walk in the cool of the morning or evening
- Do yoga, either on the living room floor or in a class
- Use some home exercise equipment like an elliptical or treadmill
Some of these activities – like a daily walk – could be done with a friend, giving you the benefits of social connections at the same time.
2. Eat well
Napoleon (or possibly Frederick the Great of Prussia) said that an army marches on its stomach. The point was that hungry, ill-nourished troops were not likely to achieve much.
Ill-nourished carers are likely to struggle too. Your body needs a certain amount of daily protein, carbs, veggies and fruit to fuel its activities. If you don’t eat regularly – or regularly eat foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value – then you’re not likely to be at your peak performance.
It’s fairly easy to improve your nutrition by making a few small changes to your diet, such as swapping from:
- White rice to brown rice
- Sweet biscuits for delicious sweet fruits
- Sugary drinks for water with a slice of lemon or lime
- Potato chips for crunchy veggies like snow peas or capsicum.
With better nutrition comes increased energy and a greater sense of vitality. You need that as a carer.
3. Connect with others
As we’ve all discovered during the pandemic, isolation isn’t good for you. We need deep relationships with other people. As a carer, you need friends, family or a partner to cry with, talk to or laugh with.
Such people help you to feel grounded and remind you that you’re not alone, even on the hardest days. They pop over with casseroles or curries just when you need it. And they’re usually the ones telling you that you need to take some time for yourself. They’re right.
If you’ve been absorbed in your caring role for a long time, you may find that many of your relationships have fallen by the wayside. But it’s never too late to call an old friend and reconnect.
Another option is to join a carers’ support group. Here, you can meet with others who understand the reality of caring and all the complicated feelings and practical concerns that it involves. If you’re not sure where to start, Carer Gateway runs an online carers’ community forum to help carers support one another.
4. Nurture your spirit
You need some moments of transcendence where you’re lifted above the daily grind and feel soothed and refreshed. Depending on your beliefs, background or culture, you might try:
- Mindfulness exercises like deep breathing or meditation
- Time in nature
- Belonging to a religious community
- Lighting a candle and watching it gently flicker.
5. Use a respite service
A respite service can be a lifeline for long-term family carers. Building respite care into your routine helps you to:
- Say ‘yes’ to some invitations from friends and family such as milestone birthdays, weddings or a date at the theatre
- Do things that refresh and inspire you
- Sleep all night without interruption and not wake until you’re ready – bliss!
- Know there’s a break coming up
- Feel refreshed and able to keep going over the coming days or weeks.
How Focused Health Care can help
Focused Health Care’s carer support program enables family carers to take a regular break to recharge your batteries.
We stay at your home and do everything you’d usually do while you take some time for yourself. We’ll provide some social activities, personal care, and meals for your loved one then stay overnight to look after them while you enjoy a full night’s sleep.
You can stay and sleep in your own bed if you prefer or you can pamper yourself with a hotel room and a long lie-in. We know how much you need it.
If you’d like to know more about our respite services, please contact us.
All information is general in nature.