Dealing with caregiver stress and staying healthy


Caring for a sick loved one can be very rewarding but also quite overwhelming. This is a harsh reality, and it makes prioritising self-care very important so that you can continue giving the best care to your loved one.

Caring for a loved one who has a serious illness takes a very real emotional and physical toll on the caregiver.

Keep in mind that you can only give of what you have got to share. So, if you're running on empty you won't have much to offer. This is why it's important to take care of yourself. As a caregiver, it's easy to become completely consumed in your caring duties and pay a great personal cost.

Warning signs of caregiver stress to look out for

Professor Michael C Herbst, a health specialist at CANSA, says that caregivers must be on the lookout for the following warning signs that can affect a caregiver both mentally and physically:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Becoming easily irritated
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Having frequent headaches, body pain, or other physical problems.

Caregivers may also experience:

  • Anger - with yourself, your family or even the person you're caring for. Sometimes this anger is associated with our fear, panic, worry, or resentment.
  • Grief - mourning the loss of our loved one's health and life together before the life-changing diagnosis.
  • Guilt - for a range of reasons, including not doing or helping enough. We may also feel guilty that we are healthy and our loved one is not.
  • Anxiety, depression and hopelessness - This may be worsened by the impact of our loved one's illness on our family, the family finances, or on other fronts.
  • Loneliness - feeling all alone in our role, even when surrounded by others, could also be due to the limited time we have for normal plans like socialising or following our previous routines.

Tips to look after your health and wellbeing

"It's essential for you to prioritise your own health so you can better care for your loved one", says Professor Herbst. He advises these excellent ways to manage and prevent caregiver stress:

  1. When you see your doctor, tell them that you are caring for a sick loved one and discuss the presence of any stress symptoms.
  2. Counselling will help you to deal with any difficult emotions, like depression, and will empower you to take back control of your health and other aspects of your life. It's important to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to feel the way you do. This will allow you to mourn your losses and work through any feelings of anger, loneliness, anxiety, or guilt.
  3. Eating healthily and exercising regularly are key to your wellbeing. While this is not easy to do when you're a fulltime caregiver, careful planning can ensure that you eat nutritious meals and help you grab 20 minutes for a brisk walk each day to help increase your energy levels, reduce your stress, and alleviate any feelings of depression and anxiety you may feel.
  4. Getting enough sleep. Even though this may not always be possible, setting a goal for how much sleep you want to get each night will prevent fatigue in the long run. Chat to your doctor if you struggle to fall or stay asleep. Also, try napping whenever your patient is sleeping.
  5. Making time to unwind by slotting in de-stressing techniques throughout your day. Try closing your eyes for five or 10 minutes, meditating, listening to relaxing music, reading a book, taking a short walk around the house, or calling a friend for a quick chat.
  6. Asking for help. Even though you may find it hard to leave your loved one in someone else's care, taking time out is one of the best things you can do for yourself and the person you're caring for. Taking advantage of available help and support will enable you to re-energise by getting out and doing something outside of the scope of your role as a caregiver.
  7. Consider downloading useful caregiving apps that are there to help you to keep track of important information, appointments and medicine reminders. Remember to keep a log of any relevant activities. Keep important notes from doctors or other healthcare providers, and keep family and friends updated with info, documents and photographs.
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