The Caregiver’s Journey Part 2: Looking After Yourself

In Part 1 of this four-part series, you learned how to determine your loved one’s needs and your own as you prepare to be a caregiver. In Part 2, you’ll learn why taking care of yourself is essential to your role and how best to do it.

Part 1: Preparing for Caring

Part 2: Looking After Yourself

Part 3: Getting Extra Help

Part 4: When Caregiving Ends

Doing the best you can for your loved one requires meeting your own needs, too.

While traveling on an airplane, have you ever wondered why, when demonstrating the use of emergency oxygen masks, flight attendants tell you to put on your own mask first before putting one on your child? That’s because it’s important for you to maintain your energy in order to then be able to help someone else.

The same thing goes for caregiving. For many people, taking care of a loved one might be a temporary, short-term situation, but for many others, it can last months or even years. While the responsibility of meeting your care recipient’s needs can be very emotionally and spiritually satisfying, coping with its ongoing challenges can be draining, both physically and mentally.

As a caregiver, how do you keep going?

Often caregivers don’t realize the gradual toll that performing various responsibilities over time are taking on their body and mind. They may not be aware of just how tired and possibly burned out they are becoming. Fortunately, there are many great ways to actively nurture yourself. In order to do this, the first step is to be aware of the cumulative signs of ongoing strain.

The Three Stages

  1. Caregiver stress. Of course, caregiving can be stressful, particularly because you need to handle any unexpected changes in your loved one’s condition, or overcome obstacles that can arise when you lack family or other support, deal with medical and/or insurance bills, try to remain productive at work, and seek time to relax and socialize.

The hormones and other chemicals your body produces during ongoing stress can affect your mental and physical health. Some mental signs of caregiver stress are poor concentration, forgetfulness, frustration, irritation, and anger. Stress-induced physical symptoms include fatigue, poor sleep, nighttime teeth gnashing, high blood pressure, heart fluttering or skipped beats, headaches, body pains, and indigestion.

  1. Burnout. If caregiver stress goes unaddressed and unrelieved, it can turn into burnout, which is characterized by a change of attitude toward the role of caring itself. People who feel caregiver stress still believe they can be effective helpers, but burned out caregivers tend to lose faith in that effectiveness and may become cynical, resentful, apathetic, and even depressed. They may begin to withdraw from family and friends, procrastinate, or be neglectful in completing home or work tasks, rely on unhealthy habits (smoking, alcohol/drug abuse), and experience a loss of libido.

  2. Compassion fatigue. This last and most extreme stage is marked by taking negative attitudes of hopelessness, frustration, impatience, or anger and redirecting them toward the person who is receiving the care. This is the last thing that loving, devoted caregivers ever expect to do.

While these stages paint a dark picture of providing care, there’s very good news: You don’t have to go through any of them. Instead, by adopting the following important, effective strategies, you can maintain your physical and emotional energy, thus ensuring that the caregiving experience for you and your loved one is a smooth, rewarding one.

Self-Care Strategies

Look after your own health. Be mindful of eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting enough sleep. If you start to feel any of the physical or mental symptoms of caregiver stress, burnout, or compassion fatigue, seek help from your doctor, therapist, or other health care provider as soon as possible. Don’t be reluctant to “put on your own oxygen mask.” Remember, you’re doing it to be a better caregiver.

Prioritize tasks and the time you spend on them. Caregiving is not the time to focus on being perfect at everything you do. Go easy on yourself, refrain from feeling guilty, do the best you can, and save your energy and enthusiasm for your loved one.

Let technology work for you. Depending on your needs, and with your care recipient’s permission, consider using in-home or wearable devices that track activity, offer virtual/audio reminders to take medications, or alert others of a medical emergency. These can be especially valuable in long-distance caregiving.

Ask for—and accept—help. Too often, caregivers feel they must do everything themselves instead of reaching out to share some of the responsibility with others. Believing in this is a big mistake, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there is probably a task that a family member, friend, or neighbor can do better or more quickly than you can in your current situation (particularly if you’re a long-distance caregiver). Also, the people around you might be looking to contribute in some way, and involving them can be a gift to them as well as to yourself.

When requesting help, be specific. If someone asks, “Is there anything I can do for you?” state a particular task, either for your loved one (“Can you pick up the medicine that is ready at the pharmacy?”) or for yourself (“Could you collect my mail?” “Would you walk my dog?”). If you don’t have the energy or even the presence of mind to think about what you need, ask others for their own specific ideas of how they can aid you.

If at all possible, take occasional breaks from caregiving. It helps to have alone time, a change of scene, and/or a brief return to a favorite activity (reading, doing a hobby or sport, etc.). In fact, asking someone to sit with your loved one for a couple of hours can be a fitting request for help. Depending on your finances, using professional respite-care services can also help.

Stay connected with others. This can be a real challenge, especially since social isolation is often one of the first effects of intensive, long-term caregiving, in which it becomes more difficult to meet friends for dinner or attend a party. But you can maintain connection in other ways, such as by scheduling a daily or weekly “check-in” phone call or in-person visit. You can even combine socializing and exercising by walking regularly with someone who is a supportive listener, and someone who can make you laugh!

Share your experience with other caregivers. Consider joining a caregiver support group in your area. You might learn innovative ideas, be acknowledged for handling your situation, and perhaps even make new friends.

As a loving and responsible caregiver, your heart is clearly in your work. All you may need are concrete, effective ways to engage your brain in the ongoing problem-solving required of anyone in that very important role.

Speaking of the heart, here’s a question to answer: As each heartbeat moves oxygenated blood out of the chambers of your heart, what’s the first organ that this blood feeds? No, it’s not your lungs, or your brain, or any other organ. It’s the heart itself, through the vessels that surround it. On a purely physiological level, even your heart knows that it will be of no help to the rest of your body if it loses its own capacity to function.

Therefore, follow your heart by caring for yourself as you care for another, and you’ll succeed in staying strong and capable for the one you love.

Want to Know More?

Check out these resources for more tips, strategies, and support:

Caregiver Action Network’s Caregiver Help Desk:

Eldercare Locator:

National Respite Network and Resource Center (ARCH):

Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging:

Jeanette Leardi is a Portland-based social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. A former caregiver to her late parents for more than a decade, she now gives popular presentations and workshops in journaling, memoir writing, ethical will creation, brain fitness, creativity, ageism, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. Learn more about her work at

Leave A Reply (Your email address will not be published)