One of my favorite caregivers of my mother once expressed, “Caregiving is not a hard job; it is a heart job.”

I thought about that line often as I helped care for my older parents for a total of 14 years. There was truth in what she said—I had lots of love for my mother and father. There were, though, also hard times. Generally, those challenges arose from the fact that I was not equipped to deal with a job I never expected to have.

As I came to understand, I was not alone. Most of us never consider that someday we might find ourselves in the role of caregiver for someone. Yet current statistics tell a different story. Today, 66 million Americans are caring for a parent, spouse, family member or friend. With the burgeoning population of people over 65—everyday 10,000 people are crossing that mark—research predicts that in the next 20 years, almost every middle-aged person will be caregiving someone.

When you aren’t prepared, the task of caregiving often hits you between the eyes. While attempting to provide medical and personal care for someone you love, you can become exhausted, discouraged and overwhelmed. And you aren’t aware there are strategies that can help you immensely. There is one lesson, above all, that is routinely overlooked, and if not practiced can result in “caregiver burnout.”

What is that? It is the understanding that caregiving is not the one-way-street we often assume. Rather, to be an effective caregiver, you must keep in mind caregiving goes two ways. Because when you are giving care, there is someone else who needs it: Yourself.

Geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, MACP, my co-author of The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents and Ourselves from the Perils of Modern Healthcare, stresses that caring for ourselves is not selfish. Instead, it replenishes us and allows us to give our loved ones the best of ourselves along the entire journey. Six proactive steps to self-care are useful in maintaining endurance and balance during challenging times. Employing them will give you strength, courage and energy while you care for those who depend on you.

  1. Develop a self-care plan. Put goals for self-care activities in writing. Reflect on those things that are rejuvenating, providing joy and refreshment. These can be exercise, gardening, church, playing music, doing art, spending time with friends. Keeping this awareness front and center helps you retain your sense of equilibrium. And by writing them down, you can see when you haven’t done any self-care for a few days. When this happens, stop and think about what needs to change to get them back into your plans.
  2. Maintain your own health. As any long-term caregiver will attest, when your focus is entirely on someone else it’s easy to neglect yourself. You can find that your sleep is disrupted, you become tired and depressed and can develop symptoms ranging from abdominal pains to body aches to headaches and other indications. For these reasons, seeing your own health providers regularly is important.

Another good strategy is to ask a close friend or family member to be observant of you, keeping a look out for warning signs that you may need help.

  1. Find your team. Early in the caregiving process, reflect on those people in your life who keep you in balance. Ask yourself: Who is willing to talk to me even at one o’clock in the morning, when I am exhausted or in a new crisis? Who am I willing to confide in about what is happening in my life?

These individuals are your “team.” They can be a sibling, close friend, clergyperson or counselor. The important thing is that they will be there for you, and you can trust them with your worries. Not sharing can lead to increasing problems down the road because it will become more difficult to confess when you need a break.

  1. Look for outside help. Since caregiving needs rarely go down, it is helpful to take steps early to research ways to find aid. Talk to health care providers about what community services might be available. The Alzheimer’s Association and state-sponsored Area Agency on Aging offer resources that can help with caregiving needs. Local senior centers can direct families in finding support. If a patient qualifies for Medicaid, he or she may qualify for free in-home or short-term respite care.
  2. Turn to faith and to your community. Studies show that a feeling of connection with something bigger than ourselves, especially in times of great need, can bring courage and solace. As well, many faith communities provide assistance in ways that other public resources don’t, such as providing meals and networks of drivers to help take people to appointments.

Locating and participating in support groups can also be very helpful. There are other people going through the same things you are, and in sharing with them you can often gain new ways of looking at your situation, find comfort that you are not alone, and derive insights that may never have occurred to you.

  1. Remember your most important role. Too often, caregivers assume that to show their love, they must “do it all”…that you must tend to all of your loved one’s medical, physical and emotional needs. It is critical to remember, however, as their daily needs continue to grow, that is an impossible task. Therefore, it is not only acceptable but essential that you find respite help.

Other caregivers can meet physical needs, but only you can give the emotional support and love that your loved ones desire the most. For a family caregiver, this is your most important role—and one to be treasured, nurtured and protected.

Learning how to care for yourself as you travel the course of caregiving is a skill I learned along the way when caring for my parents. The more I practiced it, the better I coped with many kinds of situations that arose. The key is being proactive and mindful that the care we give our loved ones should also be reflected in our own self-care. When we do so, the lives and hearts of both—the one who needs care and the one who gives it—are equally enriched.

Check out Marcy’s website, or click here to purchase her book, “The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents—and Ourselves—from the Perils of Modern Healthcare.

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