caregiving strategies

Looking After Yourself While Caregiving: 3 Things You Need To Know

By | January 14th, 2021

As part of our LiveTalk series, Being Patient spoke with Psychologist Dale Atkins, co-author of "The Kindness Advantage," about ways for caregivers to find time for oneself, build a network of support, and navigate the complex emotions of caregiving.

Caregivers are often overburdened, balancing work and raising a family while caring for a loved one with dementia. Amid the daily stresses of juggling a host of responsibilities, caregivers may pay little attention to their well-being. 

However, psychologist and author Dale Atkins said practicing self-care and self-compassion, as well as building a support network, is critical for caregivers to sustain themselves along the way. 

Being Patient sat down with Atkins to discuss ways for caregivers to practice self-care and self-compassion, asking: How do you look after yourself while caregiving?

1. Finding Time for Yourself

It can be hard to find moments in the day for self-care. People often feel guilty for taking time off from caregiving. But, Atkins said it’s important for caregivers to acknowledge that they deserve time for themselves to replenish the reservoir of energy that fuel their physical, mental and spiritual health. 

She noted that caregivers can carve out times in the day to practice self-care, while another person, perhaps a neighbor, looks after their loved one with dementia. 

“Are we able to get a neighbor to come in to sit with our loved one for awhile and listen to music, or to play a game, or to perhaps plant a plant in a pot, while we take a 10 minute break or a 15 minute break?” Atkins asked. 

She suggested that caregivers might try to carve out time, challenging as it may be, to take a walk in nature, listen to their favorite music, meditate, read a poem, or revisit a novel from their childhood. Three to four times a day, she said, find a minute to take a breath, center themselves in the body, and find strength in a prayer, a mantra, or an influential person in their life, creating a support system from within. 

According to Atkins, caregivers should also pay attention to changes in their own physical health and check with their doctor if symptoms persist. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through diet, sleep and exercise is critical for their well-being — and that is central to one’s ability to care for others. 

2. Building Relationships With People Who Are Supportive

While people may feel inclined to shoulder all the responsibilities of caregiving, Atkins said it’s important to realize that there are others who are on a similar path, people who can also accompany caregivers through their journey. 

“Some of them are families,” Atkins said. “Some of them are professionals. Some of them are just really nice people who understand what it’s like to suffer, or to enter a world of the unknown and the uncharted and the unfamiliar.”

“They could be in your church,” she continued. “They could be down the block. They could be in a community center. Instead of closing in, I suggest that people look outward.” 

Even though some may struggle with seeing a person with dementia lose their abilities, Atkins urged caregivers to instead cultivate relationships with friends, family and community members who are supportive.

3. Navigating the Complex Emotions of Caregiving

Atkins added that some caregivers might reach a point where they feel that the death of a loved one would come as a relief, that only death could bring peace. It’s a natural response, Atkins said, a common feeling shared by caregivers at some point along their journey.

While the thought can often trigger feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment, she said people should be gentle with themselves and recognize that they’re not alone. 

“There are so many people who are experiencing this, each of whom feels extremely lonely,” Atkins said. “But at that moment, we don’t realize that we really are connected. We are so much a part of this group of people who are caregivers, and who are strained, and who wonder whether or not they’ll make it.” 

When people have thoughts that they are not proud of frequently, or for long periods of time, Atkins said it can be a sign of burnout, and they should talk to someone who would understand them, whether it’s a psychologist, social worker, minister, or a support group. 

Meanwhile, there are ways for caregivers to care for themselves in these moments: flip through joyful photos, work on an art project, or drink a cup of tea and inhale its aroma. After all, caregivers can find activities to nurture their souls during times of adversity. 

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