You would do anything for your family and closest friends — and, at some point, that might include stepping in as a caregiver. In this role, you’ll tend to someone who was just in the hospital or doctor’s office, or someone who otherwise needs help with health-related and everyday tasks.
It’s estimated that there are more than 66 million caregivers in the United States alone, and that number is only expected to grow. As such, more and more people want to know the must-dos when it comes to serving in this role — most go in without any training, and therefore learn on the job.
Here are four tips every family caregiver should know to take the best care of their loved ones — and themselves.
Take Care of Your Own Health
This might be the most important tip of all. Even though your primary focus is someone else’s health, you should make a point to include some self-care into your daily routine, too. You can’t be responsible for another person if your own health falls by the wayside, after all.
You don’t have to carve out huge chunks of time to maintain your health, but it will take a conscious effort on your part to ensure you’re making enough time for you. Start by learning shortcuts in the kitchen, such as meal-planning, crockpot cooking and freezing fruit in portions you can quickly blend into smoothies. You don’t need hours at the gym to feel well, either — a 15-minute interval training workout can burn calories and strengthen you for the task at hand.
Don’t Forget Mental Health, Either
Your health doesn’t just end with the physical aspects. Being a caregiver can be trying on your mental health, too. It’s natural to feel frustrated with the role, even if that feeling occasionally extends to the person you’re caring for. You might experience guilt for not being able to do more, or isolation for having spent so much time indoors caring for the same individual. Depression is common in caregivers, so know the signs and seek help when you experience it.
No matter what, fortifying your mental health throughout this process is vital, and everyone’s preferred outlet will be different. You could try speaking to a therapist or writing your thoughts in a journal at the end of each day. Something as simple as taking a break could help clear your head — you never know what will work for you until you find it, so take as many pauses for reflection as possible.
Learn the Lingo
As a caregiver, you’re going to dive into your family member or friend’s medical journey. You’ll likely be speaking directly with doctors to plan future treatments, as well as to learn how to handle your responsibilities effectively. As such, you’ll want to sharpen your communication skills as the liaison between the doctor and the person in your care. Make sure your physician hears your observations and concerns so your loved one gets the medical attention they may need.
To make that easier, try and stay on top of organizing all the medical forms and information you have on hand, so they’re quick to find and navigate. Take notes and bring them directly to the doctor. Also, make sure you’ve filed any legal documentation required to give you power of attorney regarding healthcare or other decisions you may have to make as a caregiver.
Reach Out to Your Network
We’ve already touched on the fact that caregiving can be an isolating experience. No matter how much you love the person in your care, dedicating all your time to them can make you feel like you’re missing out on the rest of the world.
You’re not alone in this feeling — with millions of others serving in the same role, you can connect with any number of caregivers who know just how you feel. Don’t be afraid to reach out to caregiver support groups or other online message boards. Not only will other participants relate, but they’ll give you tips on how to feel better. Plus, having people to chat with regularly will provide you with your own activity to do and relieve those feelings of isolation.
Your network also includes your other family members and friends, and you should never be afraid to ask them for help. On the other hand, accept help when it’s offered and needed — that little break or moment of relief will refresh you. Otherwise, rely on your network to break through your routine. Something as simple as a coffee date or trip to the mall can be just what you need, and the people in your circle can provide that easily.
Care for Yourself, so You Can Keep Caring for Others
The key to being a successful caregiver is to remember this — your health is vital to the care of another person. So, give yourself the mental health outlets, the right nutrition, the organization and the network of support you need to succeed. That way, your loved one will thrive with your help — and you will, too.