Though meaningful, caregiving is stressful and lasts an average of 4.6 years, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Caregivers who are looking after loved ones with an advanced disorder and providing them with round-the-clock home care, have a “daily grind” that can wear them down emotionally and physically. Despite the best of intentions, it takes a toll on caregivers’ health.
Steven constantly runs from busy workdays, to high school ball games, to frequent visits with his aging parents; he hasn’t gone jogging in six months, and his weight and waistline show it.
Alice hasn’t had a full night’s sleep since her husband’s cancer surgery last month; trying to ease his discomfort and pain has left her exhausted.
Seven years of caring for her severely disabled parents has taken a toll on Nancy; she relies on wine and a sleeping pill to help her settle down at night.
How about you? If you’re always on the go; neglecting your own well-being; worn out, yet unable to relax; you should take care. Those bags under your eyes or undesirable numbers on your bathroom scale are the body’s way of warning about caregiver stress. Heed the warnings. Protect yourself by building your physical health and stamina.
Research Tells the Story
Chronic caregiver stress erodes the immune system and increases the likelihood of becoming ill.
- Caregivers are at higher risk for physical ailments like acid reflux, headaches, insomnia, muscle aches, more frequent infections, and slower wound healing
- Caregivers report chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis at twice the rate of non-caregivers.
- Caregivers engage in unhealthy behaviors:
- 72% report not going to the doctor as often as they should
- 63% report poor eating habits
- 58% exercise less than they did before caregiving.
- More than half report fair to poor health status
Compared with non-caregivers, caregivers are in worse health. (https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-health Accessed July 15, 2014)
Physical Strategies that Work
Research shows that some simple physical strategies can successfully build resilience and preserve good health. Make these four items priorities in your life:
1. Adequate Sleep: Sleep is not a waste of time or a luxury. Sleep is a productive time when your body and brain rejuvenate. Sleep strengthens your immune system and balances out moods. It improves your memory, and helps you to focus, think and learn. Sleep deprivation increases stress and the risk of accidents; it can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity or depression. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
2. Regular Movement: Physical activity boosts physical and mental health, improves sleep, reduces stress, increase alertness, and raises energy. Combined with healthy eating, it can help prevent a host of chronic diseases. Guidelines on www.LetsMove.gov suggest you should be active 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
You don’t need to go to a gym; any movement counts. Choose something you like, such as: walking, gardening, bowling, dancing, biking, or yoga. Any activity is better than none, so limit “screen time” and set goals to increase activity. Happily, if you are not currently fit you may see greater benefits from physical activity than those who are already fit.
3. Good Grooming: Cleanliness costs nothing more than the price of soap and toothpaste. Dressing well needn’t be expensive, either. But personal grooming: cleaning your skin and clothes, using a lotion or attractive scent, keeping hair clean and neatly combed, and keeping clothes in good repair all help you to look and feel good. Good grooming and healthy personal habits help you ward off illnesses and attract others to you. They help you feel good about yourself.
4. Avoiding harm: Stay safe by focusing on medications, alcohol and tobacco. Use medications as prescribed and dispose of those that are outdated. Never share prescribed drugs with another person. If you have questions about prescriptions, ask your primary care provider or pharmacist. If you are taking a variety of medications, be sure to share this list with your physician and pharmacist.
Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all. Guidelines on http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm define moderate drinking as up to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. It is not safe to drink and drive, or to drink when pregnant. Smoking or chewing tobacco is never safe.
Healthy Choices for Resilient Caregivers
None of these ideas are difficult, but choosing them can be. Disciplined, healthy choices are wise; they recognize that physical self-care isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity. As a caregiver, protecting your physical fitness and health benefits yourself and those in your care. If your energy drains away and your body breaks down, caregiving tasks that were once manageable will become difficult or impossible to do. Make healthy choices to boost your resilience and preserve your capacity to care.