Supporting the mental health of caregivers

How to maintain your mental health while serving as a caregiver.

A woman caregiving for an older man.
Photo: Pexels/Kampus Production.

As the population of the United States ages, more people are filling the role of caregivers. A caregiver is anyone who provides help to someone in need. According to the Mayo Clinic, about one in three American adults serves as an informal or family caregiver. These caregivers are often referred to as the "sandwich generation," as they are in-between caring for aging parents and raising children.   

Caregiving is an often stressful and challenging time that can leave caregivers feeling isolated, frustrated, worn out, sad and occasionally angry. This stress can put caregivers at risk of poor effects on their own health. Some factors can make caregiver stresses worse, including living with the person who needs care, caring for someone who needs constant care, feeling isolated and having poor coping or problem-solving skills.

In caregiving situations, much of the focus is on the receiver, and it can be difficult to notice signs of stress in the caregiver. Some of the most common signs to be aware of are constant worrying, changes in sleep habits, becoming easily angered, having more common headaches or health problems and misusing alcohol or other substances to cope.

The emotional and physical work of caregiving can be overwhelming at times, and it is important to make sure that caregivers take care of themselves too. Remember, if you do not take care of yourself, you will be a less effective caretaker.

Five ways to take care of yourself while caregiving:

  • Self-care rituals. Make sure you are building in time each day for small things that help you take care of yourself. These can be as simple as mindful breathing for a couple of minutes, listening to music that relaxes you, or taking a short walk outside. Michigan State University Extension has mindfulness classes that might be helpful to learn new ways to practice these moments.
  • Set boundaries. Establishing boundaries is vital as we seek to avoid burnout. Caregivers need to ensure they have personal time to take care of their own needs.  Ensure that other caregivers, family members and professionals involved with care know the limitations set.
  • Seek support. Sharing experiences with other caregivers, family members or professional support groups can help with the emotional load of caregiving. Sharing with others can help eliminate the feelings of isolation and provide new perspectives on situations. MSU Extension has support programs that might be helpful such as Powerful Tools for Caregivers.
  • Take breaks. Being intentional about making plans for respite care and taking time to get away from caregiving duties occasionally can provide a needed break. By arranging respite care, there is less to worry about because the care-receiver is taken care of.
  • Consider professional therapy or counseling, which can provide a space to express emotions or concerns that may be difficult to express in other places. Therapy can also serve as a place to look at caregiving in relation to the other aspects of the caregiver’s life. A professional can help caregivers look at maintaining their mental health while experiencing the challenges of caretaking.

Knowing that caregiving is a challenging and stressful experience should prompt caregivers to be gentle with themselves. Make sure to ask for and accept help from others, focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot and be aware of and take care of your own health.

By doing these things not only will you help yourself but you will be a better caregiver to your loved one. MSU Extension offers the Powerful Tools for Caregivers six-week series which is an evidence-based program to help caregivers manage their stress, communicate their feelings better and achieve better balance in their lives.

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