By Dr. Ross Colt
If you’re among the 1 in 5 Americans caring for an aging loved one, or an adult or child with special needs, this year has probably tested you. A lot.
Research has shown that informal caregivers (those who aren’t paid) are at a high risk of experiencing chronic stress, as well as anxiety and depression. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the stress levels of many family caregivers to unprecedented levels, which may lead to physical health problems down the road, including a lowered immune response.
November is Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize the contributions of caregivers and provide them with tools that they need to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy. Here are some tips for how caregivers can reduce stress and prioritize self-care, even in a pandemic that presents new challenges each day.
Take basic physical precautions against COVID-19 and the flu. Wear a mask in public places, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, avoid touching your face, avoid crowds, and clean high-touch surfaces including mobility and medical equipment.
Know the physical and emotional signs of burnout. Some of the physical and emotional signs of caregiver stress or burnout include lack of energy, changes in sleep patterns, weight gain or loss, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, increased feelings of resentment and more.
Stay connected. Multiple studies have shown that prolonged social isolation is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Check in with your friends regularly to stay healthy. Catch up in any way that feels restorative to you, whether that’s in their driveway from a distance or over the phone. And by all means, if you have reached your limit, contact a mental health professional for support.
Keep your loved one social, too. Even if your closest relatives and friends cannot safely visit your loved one in-person, they can still help you shoulder the emotional burden of caregiving by providing them with needed social connection. Set your loved one up on virtual communication platforms like Zoom or FaceTime, and schedule regular chats with others for them.
Express yourself. Even something as simple as journaling your thoughts regularly can boost your mood and increase your feelings of well-being. All you need to get started is a pen and paper. If you’re feeling self-conscious, write your answer to a prompt like, “what was my biggest challenge today?” or “what was one thing I am grateful for today?”
Give yourself some grace. You may feel that you’re not taking good enough care of your loved one or are selfish if you take time for yourself. That is not the case. In the words of Brené Brown, “Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.” Reframe and remind yourself: Caring for yourself is caring for others.
Find a backup caregiver. If you’re the main caregiver for your loved one—and are concerned about endangering your loved one’s health during the pandemic, need to look for work or simply need a break—consider respite care services via a PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. Nonprofit PACE programs are full-service healthcare programs for seniors who want independence but need support and offer relief for caregivers by providing transportation to medical appointments, assistance and transportation for shopping and errands, light housekeeping and help with bathing, meals and essential activities around the house for elderly individuals.
As the old saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup, and burnout can seriously impact how you care for your loved one. Prioritizing your own mental health and self-care as a caregiver isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. Following these tips and taking some time for yourself will help you and your loved one stay healthy through this pandemic, the upcoming holiday season, and hopefully for many years beyond.
Dr. Ross Colt is medical director for the Gary & Mary West PACE, an innovative, nationwide model of care for vulnerable seniors with chronic care needs offering high-quality, comprehensive and coordinated healthcare, social services and support to enable them to successfully age in place. To learn more about respite and senior care options, please visit: www.westpace.org
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