Achieving "Life Balance" for Family Caregivers

November was National Caregivers Month and for years, my company, Caring Today, used this time to invite family members to acknowledge a caregiver in their life.

I have read over a thousand stories describing all types of caregiving situations, from adult children caring for an elderly mother and father to a young teenager caring for their single parent or grandparent every day after school. Regardless of their individual circumstances, I am always touched by the selflessness of caregivers, who provide quality care for a loved one regardless of the effect this responsibility has on their personal lives.

The words dependents use to describe their family caregivers often include “selfless,” “noble,” “heroic,” “dependable,” “irreplaceable” and ultimately, “caring.” While these are all wonderful and essential attributes, what I have discovered throughout my research is that the family caregivers most frequently described as “caring” also possess an additional, unspoken quality…life balance!

So what is life balance anyway? I describe life balance more as a mindset than specific activities to tick off a list. For instance, it is when family caregivers provide well-rounded care for their loved one but are not obsessed by it; if they are employed, they don’t hesitate to tell their employer about their situation and the effect that this may have on their work; they are not hesitant to ask other family members and friends for help; and they aren’t guilt-ridden when they indulge in “me” time. Ultimately, they accept the demands of their special responsibility but understand they have control over their approach and attitude towards their role.

Does this sort of mindset happen automatically? Heck NO! Life balance requires practice - lots of it - because for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally. I say this with a lot of personal experience.

Being an active family caregiver for 14 years, I readily admit that for many of these years my mindset was anything but balanced. I was more of a mindset that focused on the duties, responsibilities and the need to “make it work.” I allowed myself to feel ongoing pressure while simultaneously believing my situation was beyond my control. I was constantly in a state of reaction.

I speak with many family caregivers who have fallen into the same emotional trap that I did. Although caregivers (and most people) greatly desire a healthy life balance, they confess that, when stressed, they quickly default into this sort of reactive, short-sighted pattern of behavior. They plow through their day, becoming more exhausted and less optimistic, ultimately cultivating a sense of anger and resentment…especially towards themselves. Sound familiar? If it does, let’s take steps NOW to help get back on track.

Dr. Lisa Price, Chief Medical Officer of InnovAge, understands the importance of keeping our nation’s 65 million family caregivers healthy. Dr. Price outlines several steps that family caregivers can exercise control over. Following any of these will help following all of them…wow!

Exercise regularly. This is a wonderful way to reduce stress. Set aside 30 minutes each day to engage in physical activity. This can be as simple as walking around the neighborhood. Consider it part of your personal “me” time.

Eat properly. Nutritious meals boost energy and improve the immune system, helping the body better cope with day-to-day stress.

Get enough sleep. Although this can be extremely difficult for family caregivers, aim for seven hours of uninterrupted sleep to help increase energy and productivity throughout the day.

Get Medical Check-ups. Don’t put your own health on the backburner; schedule regular check-ups with your doctors and dentist.

Find support. Acknowledge how incredibly difficult it is to be a family caregiver. Identify family members, friends, and outside services that can support your efforts so you have time for yourself.

In addition to these wonderful practices, I have also relied on the following three mindful exercises to bring about a sense of calm and well being when I need it most.

1. Each night before you fall asleep, think about three specific things that happened in your day that you’re grateful for. It doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, as long as they were meaningful to you.

2. Each morning, before you look at your cell phone or turn on the news, reflect for a moment and give thought to the type of day you want to experience. Let this become the mindset that guides you in lieu of beginning your day in “reactive” mode.

3. Each day, make a commitment to do at least one kind act for someone other than the loved one you care for. It can be as simple as holding the door open for someone or taking an extra moment to exchange kind words with a stranger.

Please take time to practice these suggestions and build a path that will enrich your life. Family caregivers deserve a huge debt of gratitude from the loved ones in their care, family members and society as a whole. What you do every day is truly herculean. It is wonderful to give care… you deserve to take care!

Help yourself. Help others.

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