Whether as a health care professional or a family member, caregivers can find great reward in supporting seniors with health challenges. But over time, the physical and emotional work may take a toll, especially if combined with another full-time job. For many caregivers, the pandemic has increased the responsibilities and stressors involved with their role. And they may not be able to access the resources they usually turn to for recharging.
The AARP reports that there are now just under 42 million caregivers for seniors in the United States. And the impact of caregiving on physical and mental health is now considered a matter of public health. It’s becoming even more important that caregivers receive support and care from others—and from themselves. Here are a few ways that caregivers can nurture their own health and stress levels during challenges like the pandemic.
Check in often with trusted resources and support groups
The empathy and information found in support groups and resources can often give much-needed relief and understanding. The Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) and the National Alliance for Caregiving have both compiled informative COVID-19 resources. The lists of websites, classes, published resources, online support groups, and events can be especially helpful for anyone brand new to caregiving and/or lacking medical experience. And if you live in Washington, the state has launched a new support program called Washington Listens. The Washington Listens support line lets you speak with a support specialist and helps you connect with community resources.
Practice self-compassion a few minutes a day
We are often our own worst critics—and we can be harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. Recent research has shown the positive relationship between self-compassion and psychological well-being. Being kind to yourself and knowing your worth has also been linked to deeper social connections and less anxiety, depression, and fear.
There are many ways to try out and practice self-compassion, from therapy and writing exercises to daily positive statements and mindfulness mini-sessions. It may take a few minutes of conscious effort, but the continuous act can help you grow in understanding both yourself and others.
Try a short daily meditation
Caregiving can call for some long and rushed days, especially if added to another full-time job. Luckily, the benefits of meditation need very little time commitment. Even a few minutes a day can help lower stress and anxiety, protect against depression, and improve sleep. More good news: while consistency is key, it’s also possible to feel calmer in just one meditation session.
While the many mobile apps or CDs of guided meditations can be helpful, they’re not necessary: all you really need is a quiet place and your own deep breath. Look for a place with fewer distractions, like an uncrowded park or even your car in a parking garage. Keep a pair of headphones on you, whether you’re using the apps or not, they can help block out noise and give you a quiet space wherever you are.
Stay socially connected
The connections and support of personal relationships are critical for caregivers during a time of social distancing. Strong social connections can help protect against isolation-induced loneliness, as well as health risks and depression. They can also produce oxytocin in the brain, triggering the ‘happiness hormone’ of serotonin.
If social distancing prevents meeting in person, keep in touch with phone and video calls as much as possible. Hearing voices and seeing faces can instill a stronger sense of connection (but texts and emails can still help).
Take care of your body
The work of caregiving can be physically exhausting, and the extra stress of the pandemic may increase it. Exhaustion and stress can weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to illness, so it’s important to take care of your health as best you can with food and exercise.
The exercise can be gentle and manageable; on some days, two 10-minute walks around the block may seem more doable than a 30-minute online class. And eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding (or reducing) sugar, tobacco, and alcohol also help support both the body and the brain.
Get a few minutes in nature
Being outside in green spaces can have both immediate and long-term effects on health and happiness. And no workout required: a study shows that 20 minutes of low activity in gardens or parks can still improve a sense of well-being and satisfaction. A resource like ParkRxAmerica, which promotes adding nature time into healthcare prescriptions, offers a quick map search to help you find your nearest green space.
Sitting in a quiet part of nature may also be a great time to try a short meditation, call a loved one, or tell yourself something kind. For a busy caregiver, even just a few minutes of quality self-care can make a noticeable difference in health and well-being.