Being a caregiver to someone you love can be very grievous and challenging. Whether due to an illness or developmental or physical challenge, it is often very hard on our minds, emotions and also our bodies to be a caregiver. It’s very seldom you have a chance to leave your loved one’s side to take care of household chores or errands. It’s often nearly impossible to hold down an outside job, meet up with friends, go to family gatherings or even just take a bit of time to yourself.

More and more families are electing to care for their loved ones at home rather than send them to a facility. According to Caregiver Action, “More than 65 million people, 29% of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year and spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for their loved one.” Of course, families had no choice in the past before facilities were available, but over the years, many families have drifted apart either emotionally or geographically, which makes it harder to care for their loved ones. Hence, the booming business of care facilities. Don’t get me wrong! There are many wonderful facilities out there where our loved ones receive exceptional care, but unfortunately those facilities are extremely expensive and insurance pays little to no funding for long term care. If you have a family member needing care and do not have the capabilities to care for them yourself, you’d better hope they paid in to a long term care insurance policy (which I highly recommend).

There are some facilities that do take insurance, even state or federal insurance, but often those facilities are overpopulated and under staffed. Most families often choose to care for their loved ones at home rather than put them into such a facility believing they can provide better care for their loved ones than an overwhelmed care facility. I know I did!

One of the main reasons I am writing this, is to help you understand how you need to care for yourself if you’re a caregiver to a family member. You see, I can’t even count how many studies have been done showing the rapid decrease in mental and physical health of a caregiver. The stress alone can attribute to premature aging and take nearly 10 years off your life! (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dec 7, 2004, Vol 101, No. 49.)

So, what can you do to help yourself while helping your loved one? I’m not going to lie to you, it’s simpler said than done, but you need to follow some basic daily routines, weekly actions, and monthly strategies to keep yourself from circling the drain of complete exhaustion.

As my husband’s illness progressed, my time became more and more dedicated to his care. Feeding him became trickier than trying to teach a baby to eat with utensils. Staying on top of medications; keeping the list, timed checkoffs and dates, and updating dosages was becoming a full time job. At one point, I had to give him medications every four hours, around the clock. I was lucky to get in a couple of hours of sleep at a time only once or twice in a 24 hour period. I was cranky from lack of sleep, my blood pressure skyrocketed (making me more cranky) and to top it all off, I was in the midst of menopause. I was feeling the internal combustion ready to devastate my entire neighborhood.

I was more fortunate than some though; I had my sisters and mom who would readily pick up the phone in the middle of the night if I needed to talk, scream or cry; and a friend living close by who would run over in a millisecond to help me out on some of the more pressing, physical responsibilities needing to be handled; plus I had my daughter to run errands for me on occasion. Still, I was feeling as if I just couldn’t breathe much less take on one more thing.

In the midst of all this I managed to have my friend give me at least two or three hours of her time every couple of weeks to stay with my husband while I attended a caregiver’s support group. The group was hosted by a local, private nursing company and facilitated by a registered nurse. One day, I walked into the group and just as I sat down the nurse came up to me and told me I needed to get away for at least a week before I ended up in the hospital with a stroke. I must’ve looked pretty bad for her to have charged right for me within seconds of walking in the door.

At first I became defensive and told her there was no way I was going to leave my husband for that long and it would be impossible for me to find an alternate caregiver. Our insurance did not cover private nursing, so we were not candidates for respite care. She literally ordered me to take at least a week, as far away from home as possible. It took me a few days to secure someone who could come and stay while I drove from California to Minnesota and back to see my best friend whom I hadn’t seen in five years.

Having that down time, with no responsibilities was both horrifying and uplifting. After I returned home, I was able to breathe again, get back on a schedule and function like a normal human. I started making sure I kept up my exercises, paying attention to what I was eating, talking with doctors to change meds so I could get some sleep, making sure I went outside as much as possible and staying hydrated. Within a week my blood pressure stabilized without medication, I wasn’t as cranky and the depression had lifted substantially.

Through it all I was grieving for my husband, myself and the kids and grandkids. Yet, I was so very grateful for that support group and the nurse who took charge to ensure I stayed alive while caring for my husband. After my husband passed away, the nurse asked me to speak at another caregiver group regarding the difference in me after taking that break and staying on top of my own healthcare.

I wanted to share this all with you to help you realize the toll it can take to be a caregiver for a loved one. The sacrifices are immense and overwhelming, but you have to take the time to take care of yourself too. Make sure you have some help so you can have some down time. Eat right as best as you can, stay hydrated, get rest at every opportunity and for your own sanity, please find a caregiver’s support group to help you with all of that!

My prayers and blessing to you always.