Balancing a full-time job with caregiving is a tough juggling act—especially when the one ball you can’t drop is self-care.
If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the bandwidth to take care of your aging parent. It’s a lesson actress Queen Latifah told Self magazine she learned while caring for her late mother, Rita Owens, after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
More than 27 million people in the U.S. are providing care for older adults, and they’re often relatives and friends not trained for the job, according to Masami Takahashi, PhD, at Northeastern Illinois University. Moreover, two-thirds of those informal caregivers are women, taking on caregiving in addition to their existing roles of parent, spouse, partner, employee or employer—making it primarily a women’s issue. Sometimes women are forced to assume the role because of cultural norms, a sense of duty, financial necessity or safety, especially as COVID-19 clusters caused many skilled nursing facilities to shut down and influenced families to take in their loved ones.
The isolation, financial, physical and psychological stressors of caregiving can take a toll: “It was tough, I’m not going to lie,” Latifah admitted. “I would just want to fall apart.” Taking time out for herself helped her reset and handle a full workload along with her caregiving duties. While she said there can never be enough support for caregivers, she learned that support has to start within yourself.
“Take a hike. Take a walk. And try to get some sleep. You know, just escape a little bit,” she said. “Just watch something on TV, like some sci-fi. Mom and I would do that together. Or even get a massage, get some reflexology. Massage was important to us. I would give my mother massages.”
Start planning now
Holly Riley, aging services coordination director with Texas Health and Human Services Commission, likens self-care to a flight attendant advising passengers to put the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can help someone else if they need you.
“Oftentimes, people in caregiver situations are there because somebody needs assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs): cooking, cleaning, bathing and even minor medical care,” Riley explained. “And being in that position can take someone by surprise. We don’t plan for a medical emergency or chronic condition or memory loss; those things happen. But we should plan for aging.”
Ideally, you want to create a caregiving plan the minute you start helping your parents with chores like grocery shopping or mowing the lawn, before their health worsens, advised caregiving expert Pamela D. Wilson of Golden, Colorado. Explain that you’re happy to do it, she said, but ask them some questions:
“What’s going to happen when your health starts to fail or get worse? What do you want? Where do you want to live? Can you pay for care? If not, who is going to pay for you? If you run out of money, how do we plan for Medicaid? Explain I can give you 10 hours of caregiving a week, but I cannot give you 40 hours. When you cannot take care of your house and I cannot do it either, do we sell it, or do you move into a care community?”
Put their answers to all these questions in the care plan. Make sure they assign an agent for health care power of attorney and a financial power of attorney in case they lose the mental capacity to make decisions or pay their bills.
In addition, ask them about their preferences for care – their likes and dislikes – and have them choose several caregivers, in order to divvy up duties. Also, create a duty roster so each caregiver signs up for recurring activities, such as managing medications or grocery shopping.
Put supports in place
Take care of your mental health and join a support group for caregivers in your situation, Riley advised. You can learn tips for making life easier and find comfort in knowing you are not alone. Other tips she suggested:
- Ask the human resources department at work about the caregiver supports available, such as flex time or work-from-home options.
- Stay active by starting an office walking club. Choose a buddy to help you stick to it.
“Caregivers are the worst people about saying no and setting boundaries because they feel guilty,” Wilson said. “The minute it starts destroying your life, you have to do something or you’ll be the one who needs care, and who’s going to take care of you?”
To begin setting healthy boundaries for yourself, try the following:
- Don’t do too much for your care recipient or they will expect it. Let them do as much as they are capable of doing.
- Look at caregiving as a partnership. What can your parents still do that can help you? If your mom still cooks, ask her to prepare some meals for your family.
- Learn more at Wilson’s YouTube channel, which includes videos that show caregivers how to take control, get help and set boundaries.
Signs of caregiver burnout
Feeling fatigued, depressed or quick to anger, experiencing emotionally charged moments, and self-doubt are all signs of caregiver burnout, Riley said.
“You could say that a lot of people are feeling similar experiences with the pandemic and the isolation,” Riley explained. “But with caregivers, that’s always been the experience for them—isolation, loneliness and depression because often they are alone in their duties.”
Once you recognize the warning signs of caregiver burnout, seek help and be willing to make some changes, Wilson said.
- Find something you can do for yourself every day that improves your mood.
- Be honest about what you want. For example, if you want to hire professional caregivers and your parents refuse, say, “I realize you don’t want it, but I need you to do this for me one or two days a week or my health is going to suffer.”
- Don’t let finances prevent you from getting assistance. See if they qualify for Medicaid or look to volunteer organizations, such as churches, for free caregivers.
- Send your care recipient to a senior center for a few hours or to respite care for a week.
While caregiving is challenging, Riley said a lot of caregivers don’t want it to be perceived as a burden because it’s not. It’s an act of love.