Are you taking on too much? (Of course you are.) You don't have to abandon your role as a caregiver to ease the burden. Use these research- and expert-backed solutions to feel—and function—better.
Reclaim Your Original Role.
Caregiving changes the way you relate to the person you’re caring for. But it’s crucial to retain some of the old patterns, says Brian D. Carpenter, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and an eldercare expert at Washington University, in St. Louis. For example, ask your father for advice about work, even if he’s in the early stages of dementia. If you’re caring for an aging parent, as many caregivers are, don’t call (or think of) what you’re doing as "parenting," no matter how much it may sometimes feel that way. “Your parent is first and foremost your parent, regardless of her physical or mental state,” says Carpenter. “You can’t reverse that role, and being aware of that will help her preserve her dignity, as well as your relationship.”
Adults who participated in caregiving support groups reported feeling less burdened and depressed and had an improved sense of overall well-being, according to a 2011 review published in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
“Most start out saying, ‘That’s not for me,’ only to later realize it’s exactly what they need,” says Jennifer Merrilees, Ph.D., a clinical nurse specialist at the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Chalk it up to the word should. “You might feel you should be able to handle it on your own, when in fact that’s a recipe for isolation and fatigue. Talking to other people in your situation can make you feel less alone and give you practical caregiving ideas, too,” says Steven Huberman, Ph.D., a caregiving researcher and the founding dean of the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work, in New York City.
Look for a group that’s run by a clinical social worker, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, advises Randi Kaplan, a licensed social worker and the director of the Caregiver Support Program at Montefiore Health System, in New York City. The more specific the group (“for caregivers of people with cancer”), the more you’re likely to benefit from the experience. Give it a few sessions to see if it’s a good fit. If you don’t feel supported or understood—or simply don’t feel better—after several meetings, switch groups, says Kaplan.
Many community organizations and hospitals offer such groups. You can also contact your local Area Agency on Aging (N4A.org) for a recommendation, or find online groups at caregiver.org. If you really don’t want to join, seek one-on-one help from a social worker or a therapist with caregiving experience, says Kaplan.
Think of Exercise As Your Lifeline.
No, there is no such thing as a caregiving cure-all, but physical activity comes close, says Karen Robinson, Ph.D., the director of the Memory Wellness Initiative at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
Exercise is a direct and almost immediate remedy for the top complaints among caregivers—lack of energy, sleep woes, stress, pain, and depression, according to a 2006 National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) survey. Addressing those issues has a secondary benefit: “Research shows that if you stay healthy, your loved one is more likely to as well,” says Robinson.
Even 15 to 20 minutes of activity most days is enough to make a difference, says Robinson. If your loved one is still mobile, consider a family gym membership, so you can both go. (YMCAs often offer programs for senior citizens and people with disabilities.) Or focus on at-home workouts. Strength training is especially beneficial if you help move or lift another person, so invest in a set of hand weights or resistance bands.
Try to Cultivate Inner Calm.
Caregivers who did eight sessions of mindfulness training (classes where they learned to observe and accept their physical and mental states) for two months felt less depressed, slept better, and believed their overall quality of life had improved, according to a 2015 study of 37 people by Ken Paller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Yoga, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral therapy can all increase mindfulness.
Say Yes to Help.
You know you should ask for—and accept—assistance. So why are you still doing almost everything yourself? “Logically, you understand that delegating is a must,” says Kaplan. “But emotionally you’re listening to the little voice in your head that says, ‘This is your responsibility. You should be able to handle it.’”
The fix? “Make yes your default response to offers of help,” says Huberman. “Your brother offers to get groceries, even though they won’t be exactly what you need? Say yes. A member of your synagogue says she’ll bring dinner over? Yes again.”
If the offers aren’t flying in or aren’t sufficient, ask your loved one’s family members, friends, and colleagues to join you for an informal meeting. Come up with a list of the caregiving tasks you could unload, then see who is willing to handle them on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. (This can also be accomplished via e-mail or Google Docs. But you’re more likely to have a more nuanced and productive conversation in person, says seasoned caregiver Sheila Warnock.) Visit sharethecare.org to download free resources for organizing a caregiving group.
Accept that the help you get may be less than perfect. “No one’s going to do it exactly right,” says Huberman. “And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that you’re failing your loved one.”