We cannot overstate what fantastic, unselfish people carers are. These are people who, either professionally or entirely voluntarily, devote most of their spare time to ensuring that people in need of care are treated like royalty. It is common for adults to care for elderly relatives whose health is diminishing and who just can’t cope by themselves 24/7.
While you might have the greatest will in the world to make sure that your elders (or other patients) are receiving the care they need, it’s a very hard balancing act to provide this care while also trying to run your own household and perform to a high level at work. Indeed, carers run the risk of focusing so intently on looking after others that they neglect their own health and wellbeing, which only ends up being counterproductive. Without exercising adequate self-care, they could lose their passion for caregiving and hence the patient might not get the standard of treatment that they require.
The easy answer is, of course, to entrust our fully trained and vetted carers! However, for those who participate in caring for others, here is a guide to mastering self-care so that you can keep providing quality care to the people you love most.
Signs of carer burnout
If any of these signs are noticed in a carer, they could strongly hint at burnout:
1. Withdrawal from friends and family
2. Loss of interest in hobbies that they used to enjoy
3. Diminished appetite
4. Excessive weight loss
5. Disregard for personal health or hygiene
6. Problems with sleeping
7. Regularly feeling sick
8. Severe self-criticism
9. Speaking negatively about patients
10. Depressed feelings
11. Excessive alcohol consumption
De-stressing for carers
Some carers will handle stress better than others. Some will feel an enormous sense of satisfaction at the end of each care shift, happy in themselves for knowing that they made another person’s life easier. Others may feel tense, irritated or exhausted immediately after their care shift ends and can find it extremely difficult to switch off.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel when you’re caring for someone, but it’s important to be aware of your emotions so that you can de-stress in a way that’s appropriate. Whatever you might be feeling after a care shift, these actions could help you to relieve any lingering stress:
1. Once a care shift has ended, devote as much time to yourself as you need and do whatever makes you happy or relaxed. You’ve earned it after several hours of giving your time for the benefit of others.
2. Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. Sometimes it can be a withholding of emotions that takes the biggest toll on carers.
3. If you have a few days off, treat yourself to a mini-break or do something substantial that you will enjoy greatly.
4. Find a comedy that you like and enjoy that after your care shift. Exposure to light-hearted, humorous entertainment can be the perfect antidote to stressful feelings.
5. Listen to relaxing music or practise meditation.
A large portion of carer stress can come from within if the carer is a highly self-critical person who focuses more on minor, forgivable mistakes than the successful completion of caregiving tasks. Even in moments of self-doubt, it helps carers a lot to acknowledge that:
1. They are trying their best, which is the most that can be asked of any person in any vocation.
2. They are not alone – family and friends are always on call to offer support.
3. There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed or tired. Caregiving is such a hands-on activity that some degree of fatigue is almost inevitable.
4. The patient and their family are hugely appreciative of the carer’s time, even if the patient might not be able to express it clearly.
5. If they are feeling very overwhelmed, they can seek the help of a healthcare professional.
This video features carers talking about the challenges they face in maintaining excellent care and stressing the importance of adequate self-care.
Accepting help from friends and family
Carers are often so committed to helping others that they refuse any offers of help from people who want to give them a well-earned break. Sometimes they might feel guilty about accepting help from others when it’s so ingrained in their psyche to dispense help rather than receive it. However, for their own benefit, carers are well advised to accept offers of help from family and friends when asked.
There is nothing wrong with a carer making a list of ways in which others could actively help them, for instance by cooking dinner, screening phone calls or taking them for an evening out. Family and friends of carers will be well aware of how much effort the carer put into tending to his/her patients and would certainly not baulk at being asked for an occasional favour. Even if the carer simply drafted a list of the help that he/she would like but didn’t give it to anyone, he/she could draw from it if someone offers to help them.
If you care for an elderly relative, along with other family members or a professional carer, there is a fantastic app called Jointly which streamlines communication between all parties so that everybody knows who is doing what. This keeps caring duties in good balance and can provide much-needed relief if there’s something you hadn’t got around to doing but is being managed by someone else.
How to manage tasks in a stress-free manner
The workload of a carer can seem overwhelming. There are so many small tasks to be completed that some of them are likely to be deferred (if not neglected). This is a common dilemma for carers, though, and they shouldn’t be self-critical for putting off certain tasks as they only have a finite amount of time with which to work. It helps to take a step back, decide which tasks are the highest priority and deal with those one by one. At least by calmly getting through tasks, they will feel that progress is being made and that should help to keep any stress in check. These tips can help in the management of caregiving tasks:
1. Prioritise your schedule: Before each care shift, write down every task you wish to complete and then assign a priority ranking to each of them. This will help you to determine which tasks are most important so that you can ensure to get these done during your shift.
2. One step at a time: It’s understandable that you might have an eye on the bigger picture with your patient, but as their condition can change rapidly and unexpectedly, it’s best to focus solely on the next care shift. Doing so will make you feel less overwhelmed and better able to give your patient the care he/she needs here and now.
3. Keep all information handy: Keep any important information about your patient in the same place and have it ready to call upon instantly. This includes their contact details, the number of their doctor, their medication and a list of appointments. Having all this to hand will put your mind at ease.
4. Go ‘off the grid’ during caregiving: You’ll want to give your full attention to the patient while caring for them, so don’t feel obligated to take calls or respond to messages. You can get back to these in due course. If turning off your phone or putting it in flight mode helps, it’s OK to do this.
5. Negotiate with your workplace: If you have a good rapport with your employer and you think they would be open to the idea, ask them if you can work flexible hours so that your caring duties and full-time job are kept in harmonious balance.
6. Set up a messaging group: It’s easier than ever to keep all family members abreast of the patient’s condition with messaging platforms such as Jointly (see above), WhatsApp and Messenger. These allow you to update all concerned parties quickly and easily, instead of having to spend time on multiple phone calls.
7. Designate and delegate: If you share caregiving duties for a patient with other carers, go for a ‘divide and conquer’ approach by distributing the workload evenly or by designating tasks to the carer who has the greatest aptitude or enthusiasm for each one.
8. Have a support network: There’s no way you can do it all on your own. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family to help with duties such as cooking, driving and cleaning for you. They will happily try to lighten your load in whatever way they can so that your downtime is as relaxing as can be.
9. Self-indulge: Reward yourself at the end of each care shift. You’ll probably just want to go to sleep for a few hours, but this counts as a reward for your unselfish work. During your downtime, treat yourself to whatever makes you happy, whether it’s a warm bath, your favourite meal or a cosy night in watching a film you enjoy.
Self-care tips for carers
Carers who enjoy their spare time and detach from caring will be relaxed and refreshed when their next caring shift begins, while patients would prefer to see their carer feeling relaxed than drained or pressurised. Therefore, it’s mutually beneficial for carers to adequately unwind between care shifts and these are some of the ways in which they can practise proper self-care.
1. Gentle exercise: Even simple exercises such as yoga or a short walk can help carers to feel refreshed after a shift. Some carers might enjoy exercising and wish to do something more vigorous than short walks or stretching, but exercise should be relatively easy-going so that it doesn’t drain the carer too much.
2. Adequate sleep: It’s essential that carers get a proper, uninterrupted sleep in between shifts so that they’re not fatigued when their services are called upon. Caffeinated drinks should be avoided before going to sleep, as should any activity which involves looking at a screen. It’s best for carers to employ any techniques (e.g. relaxing music, a warm bath) which help them to relax before their intended sleeping hours.
3. Healthy eating: It’s no coincidence that carers who maintain a nutritious, well-balanced diet will be far better revitalised for their duties than those who constantly wing it on fast food. Although some carers might not wish to cook a full dinner after their shift, it’s important to eat even a small, wholesome meal. Also, skipping meals entirely is strongly discouraged.
4. Meet up with friends: Try to find the time to socialise with friends and doing something you enjoy, whether it’s having them around for some leisurely drinks or going for a night out to the cinema. Activities such as these will help you to unwind and allow you to talk to friends about your caring experience, which is especially helpful if you’re finding it stressful.