Caring for the Caregiver

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When my friend Caroline's father showed signs of Parkinson's disease last summer, she moved him from northern California to her home in Wisconsin, providing 24/7 care for several months.

She's not alone. An estimated 44 million Americans, ages 18 and older, are unpaid caregivers for adults. When you include parents caring for children with special needs, that number edges closer to 65 million.

My friend loved creating new memories and deepening her bond with her father, but also found she had higher stress and less time for herself, friendships, work, and sleep. Caroline eventually realized that to provide the best care for her father, she also had to take care of herself.

She was fortunate to come to this realization sooner rather than later. It's quite common for caregivers not to prioritize their own care, yet it's imperative for their own mental and physical well-being.

Studies show family caregivers are at an increased risk for heart attack, depression, excessive use of alcohol and other substance use, and more.

Caregivers can feel guilty and selfish taking time to address their own needs.

"You're not being selfish," explained Karen Monts, Director of Grief Support Service, for Hospice of Michigan. "You're being self-kind, self-compassionate and self-gentle." The challenge, Monts adds, is, "How do you fit it in?"

The trick to successfully nurturing yourself in the five dimensions of self—physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social—is to set reasonable goals. You don't have to pay big bucks for a spa visit or spend hours at the gym.

"We ask people, 'What can you do for one minute a day?" said Monts. "Then we ask, 'What about half hour per week? One hour per month?'"

8 Ways Caregivers Can Care for Themselves

Get Moving. If you like the gym, great! Go there. But moving can be as leisurely as a five-minute walk around the neighborhood, a quick bike ride, or a brief yoga practice. What you do matters less than you actually doing it.

Visit Mother Nature. A walk through the woods, a swing on the porch, sitting in a park—anything that allows you to take deep, technology-free breaths of fresh air can help you re-center.

Feed Your Brain. To give your mental dimension a boost, try a quick puzzle, a trivia game or reading a short article.

Nurture Your Soul. Waking up five to 10 minutes earlier a few days a week can give you time for reflection, prayer or journaling.

Remember Fun. What makes your heart smile? Whether it's a visit to the library, binge watching Netflix or strolling through a museum, just do it.

Take a Breather. Caregivers tend to be reluctant to accept offers of help, but you don't have to ask for a four-hour commitment. Invite a friend to help for 30 to 60 minutes while you take a glorious soak in a hot bath, head to a café or simply catch up on sleep. They'll feel honored you asked.

Connect with Your Peeps. Friendships are tough to nurture when you're tapped out emotionally, but even a five-minute phone conversation with a good friend can provide much-needed laughter and discussion.

Consider Respite Care. In-home respite care provides temporary relief to permanent caregivers for an afternoon, several days or even weeks. While this option can be pricey, it can also be a good investment in your own health.

Taking these steps to care for yourself is critical, as caregiver burnout is very real. You may be providing care for a long period of time. Eventually, when your loved one's level of need dictates palliative or hospice care is appropriate, hospice can be an important piece of the puzzle.

"One of the great benefits of hospice care is that it's family-centric, not only patient-centric," said Aaron Leestma, founder and CEO of West Michigan Hospice.

"We provide assistance for the patient and for the caregiver. Hospice care provides family the opportunity to heal, find peace, and navigate those end-of-life decisions."

Support Groups: Connect with other caregivers in West Michigan:

8 Self-Care Apps to Consider

  • Breathing Zone
  • Calm
  • Happify
  • Headspace
  • Pacific
  • Relax Melodies
  • Sanvello
  • Shin

Kirsetin Morello is a Michigan-based author, speaker, writer, travel-lover, wife and grateful mom of three boys. Read more about her at www.KirsetinMorello.com.

This article originally appeared in the Apr/May 2020 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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