Tending to your own well-being is as critical as caring for your relative. And reducing stress will help you take better care of your loved one. "It's not a selfish act to care for yourself. It's essential," says Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association.
Gunta Krasts-Voutyras, 71, of Clemons, N.Y., managed to weave in small pleasures for herself during the 18 years she cared for her mother, who suffered from dementia. "I had to work myself in somewhere in between," she says.
As she sat by her mother's bedside, Krasts-Voutyras would knit or read. She had a satellite dish installed, which allowed her to watch movies after her mother fell asleep. And she treated herself to little luxuries: "I would make sure I had wonderful aromatic soaps and a nice nightgown."
To help reduce your stress, consider these tips.
Knowledge is power. Learn about your loved one's disease and the caretaking requirements, especially when it comes to dementia. Having the right information can reduce stress because you'll gain confidence and avoid making mistakes. Check the Web sites of disease-specific organizations for information.
Find a caregiving buddy. A current or former family caregiver is someone you can call who can understand your situation and commiserate with you. You may be able to find a buddy through a support group, the local chapter of a disease-specific organization or even in the doctor's waiting room.
"The isolation of family caregiving can pull you down. It's easy to become inward," says Mintz, a caregiver for her husband, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1974. "Don't shy away from talking about what you're going through."
Take time out. A break allows you to return refreshed. A weekend away is a nice goal, but daily breaks help, too. Krasts-Voutyras would go to another floor of the house if she needed a few moments for herself.
For longer breaks during the day, you could seek respite care by hiring a professional aide or asking a neighbor to relieve you. Or consider adult day care. "It's a place where your loved one can go, and you can do other things like grocery shop," says Donna Schempp, director of programs and services for the caregiver alliance.
Ask for help. A support system is critical. "I know that in a crisis, if my husband falls during a transfer, I can call the neighbors," says Mintz. Family and friends can also fill in for you for, say, an hour a week while you run errands, take a yoga class or go to religious services. Check with local support groups or services if you don't have friends or family nearby.
Read the signs. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Constant fatigue and irritability are signs that you're facing burnout. See your doctor, eat right and exercise. "Exercising could be a five- to ten-minute powerwalk around your house," says Mintz.