Making time for self-care is crucial when
you’re caring for a sick family member

If you’ve flown, you’ve heard the drill: “In case of an emergency, please secure your oxygen mask first before assisting others.” It’s a sound piece of advice that experts advise caregivers to heed even while their feet are planted firmly on the ground.

“It’s that model of — you know when the oxygen mask comes down? That’s a good analogy,” says Albany County Department for Aging Commissioner Deb Riitano. “Take care of you, and then hook up the kid, you know? Because that’s what you need.”

It is estimated that almost 80% of long-term care in the United States is provided by unpaid or informal caregivers, people who care for others who need help with everyday tasks. Of that caregiver number, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the majority are women who have reached middle age and who also have jobs. Many baby boomers now find themselves part of the “sandwich generation,” a term coined to describe someone who is caring for an older family member as well as someone who is younger than they are.

Unfortunately, the demands of caregiving can limit a caregiver’s ability to find the time or energy to care for themselves. In a 2019 CDC public health survey, about 15% of caregivers who responded reported 14 or more mentally unhealthy days in the previous month. About 18% reported experiencing 14 or more physically unhealthy days during the same time period. Insufficient sleep, inability to schedule and keep medical appointments, stress, and suffering from their own chronic diseases were the most common reasons provided for these unhealthy days.

Felicia Segelken is a social worker and facilitator for monthly caregiver support groups with LifePath, an Albany-based organization that provides supportive services for older adults. She says one of the hardest parts about being a caregiver is switching to a mindset in which you prioritize taking care of yourself. “A lot of caregivers take on a lot of stuff themselves, and don’t necessarily ask for help, which definitely leads to putting their own self-care on the back burner,” she says. “There’s a lot of guilt if they’re not focusing on the loved one.”

Caregivers are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and they’re at an increased risk of suffering from chronic disease themselves. Riitano, who along with her siblings cares for her 95-year-old mother with dementia, has seen firsthand the impact caregiving can have on a family. “My brothers do most of the caretaking, and my sister brings meals as well, but my brother that does most of the caretaking is unwell himself,” she says. “The person who is caretaking, they certainly make sure that the person they’re caring for is getting meals, but they might not be getting meals themselves. They might not be able to sleep — my brother has had some serious issues that have needed attention, and he’s needed caretaking, too.”

Here are some steps experts suggest caregivers consider to maintain their own health.

Find someone to listen

Being able to confide in someone often helps to head off feelings of isolation and powerlessness in overwhelmed caregivers. Those who receive regular emotional support are better equipped to prevent burnout, handle difficult care decisions, and balance their own needs with those of their loved ones.

Segelken advises caregivers to establish a support system even before they think they need one. “It is really helpful to be in a space where you’re comfortable and sharing the hardships and good times of caregiving,” she says. “It’s important to be heard.”

While finding the time to participate in structured support groups can seem impossible, Riitano says it’s critical. “Find one virtually! You’re not being selfish, taking that time for yourself, and if you can do it from home it will be easier.”

Establish respite care

Finding some kind of respite care is another important step for caregivers. Caring for a loved one is rewarding but exhausting, so it is important to know you have help when you need it most. “I come across some caregivers that don’t realize all the different services that are available to them, and [they] wait until something happens in their lives where they need help immediately, instead of being able to walk through that process in preparation,” Segelken says.

Meals on Wheels or other food delivery options can take a load off a caregiver’s plate (pun intended). Holly Cargill-Cramer, executive director of LifePath, says that Meals on Wheels is “more than a meal, because we’re not just UPS dropping off a box of frozen dinners on a porch. We are required to make sure the person comes to the door or lets us in; it’s basically a daily status check along with the meals, and we can report back to caregivers or social workers if we observe changes in status.” This can mean peace of mind for a caregiver who needs to be at work during the day.

In addition to programs like Meals on Wheels, a number of organizations provide various levels of similar services in the Albany area, including Community Caregivers and the Albany Neighborhood Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NNORC). Community Caregivers is a volunteer organization that provides regular respite care as well as assistance with tasks like shopping, transportation, referrals to other agencies and services, and filling out important paperwork. NNORC is an interfaith community collaboration that provides support for caregivers and for those who are aging in place. They often provide programming, assistance navigating healthcare, education, and home visits as well.

Senior drop-in day programs are another potential option that can provide some respite. LifePath manages a number of senior centers that provide various levels of unstructured or guided activity, which offers socialization for people who have grown isolated through age or other circumstances. “Someone can go to work and know that Mom is not home alone all day long, if something happens,” Cargill-Cramer says. “A meal is being made for her and she has social activities. So [caregivers] can drop folks off and have that emotional respite either because they’re working or just need some time for themselves.”

In-home care, while expensive, is another alternative, one for which the government is slowly recognizing the need for subsidized funding. “The fact is, we’re in a home care crisis,” Riitano says. “My office has done a great job lobbying for money to get [subsidized] home care, and thankfully our Senator Schumer is on top of it as well.”

Woman meditating
Photo: Creative House.

The little things

Caregivers can also take some other smaller steps on their own that can make a difference in their health and capacity to continue as caregivers.

Segelken recommends caregivers take some time — even if it’s just once a month — to check in with themselves. “Even taking five minutes of your time, putting away technology and seeing how you are in that moment,” she says. “It allows you to slow down in our fast-paced society, and even something as simple as writing a check-in list or letter for yourself can be helpful.”

Riitano also suggests that if you have a faith tradition to seek assistance there. “If you’re connected to a synagogue or church or a mosque, there are often resources there,” she says. “And at the very least, if you’re a religious person, you’re going to need spiritual help. That’s important, too.”

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