By Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD
If you are responsible for the wellbeing of others – whether you’re a parent of a child with special needs, or caring for an aging parent, spouse or other loved one – you know that caring for someone else is hard work. Approximately 44 million Americans are caregivers, and the average caregiver devotes more than 20 unpaid hours per week to supporting the health and wellbeing of their loved one. That is on top of their other duties and obligations, including full time jobs in many cases.
The work of caregiving can take a toll on your sleep and your health. Research indicates that more than two-thirds of caregivers experience disturbed sleep. Other research indicates that caregivers have three times the rate of depression than matched non-caregivers, which may be related to chronic impaired sleep. More than half of caregivers experience declines in health while providing care. Caregivers may feel that they are burning the candle at both ends, and at two places in the middle, and never have a chance to rest.
Caregiving is meaningful and caregivers value making sure that their loved ones have a higher quality of life. Even though caregiving is tough, it is also emotionally gratifying and rewarding, and it can yield positive benefits. In a 6-year study at John Hopkins University of 3,500 caregiving spouses, adult children, and relatives, researchers found that caregivers had an 18% reduced rate of death compared to non-caregivers. Perhaps caregiving, although challenging, provides an innate sense of meaning and purpose that promotes you taking care of yourself, so that you can keep on taking care of your loved ones.
There are clearly benefits to being there for a loved one, and you experience that love, joy, and gratitude every day. As you reflect on caregiving during National Family Caregiver Month, allow yourself space to support your own health and wellbeing, and find ways to care for yourself.
If you are a caregiver, self-care is critical to maintaining your energy and your quality of life. Here are 3 steps to self-care for caregivers.
1. Learn the benefits of mindfulness
At its simplest, mindfulness means being aware of your mind – being aware of what goes on in your thoughts. There is a great deal that goes on within our heads, and often the drama in our heads is based on regrets of the past, expectations that weren’t met in the present, and our fears or hopes for the future. Mindfulness is intended to help us become aware of all those streams of thought. This is a powerful opportunity for insight, because in the present moment, we can better manage our stress. That’s why being mindful is such a useful tool for stress management.
2. Get mindfulness training
Mindfulness training can be a big help. First, mindfulness training helps build your resources to survive challenging times. Second, mindfulness training helps you pay attention and notice and enjoy the good times with your loved ones. Third, mindfulness training offers you a consistent way to recharge, restore, and recover. Research at Northwestern University found that when caregivers participated in mindfulness training, they had lower levels of depression, improved sleep, and an overall improved quality of life. In the study, the care-recipients (individuals with early stage dementia) also participated in mindfulness training, and experienced similar benefits.
3. Try Chair Yoga as a great mindfulness strategy
Chair Yoga is a simple, accessible way to bring gentle mindful exercise into your life. It’s an adapted form of yoga that anyone can do, no special equipment required. Chair Yoga can be totally seated, making it accessible for individuals with mobility limitations. It can also include standing poses with the support of the chair. Try Chair Yoga to manage your own stress and boost your health and well-being or try it with your loved one, as a shared strategy for stress management and wellness promotion.
To find a class in your local area, look for Chair Yoga classes at fitness centers, community centers, and health and wellness facilities.
Try these gentle and fully seated Chair Yoga exercises at home or at work or with your loved one.
Sit quietly on a comfortable chair.
Roll your shoulders down and back to engage the muscles of the back and open your chest.
Rest your palms in your lap, palms facing up.
Close your eyes, and focus on slow, deliberate breathing.
As you inhale, say “Inhale.” As you exhale, say “Exhale.”
Breathe deliberately for 2 to 5 minutes.
From your seated position, gently twist at the waist toward the right, bringing your right hand back to the side of the chair and your left hand to the outside of your right leg.
Keep your neck soft with a gentle stretch.
Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Repeat on the other side.
From your seated position, lift the right leg forward as high as possible, engaging the thigh muscles.
Hold for 5–10 deep breaths to cultivate mental and physical endurance.
Repeat on the left side.
Overall, remember that being a caregiver is an honor, because your loved one has trusted you with their health and safety. But also, remember to honor yourself for the hard work you do. You already take good care of your loved ones – remember to take good care of yourself, too.
Learn more about National Family Caregivers Month, and review resources to support you as a caregiver, from these organizations:
Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura is the Division 47 (Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology) representative to APA’s Committee on Aging (CONA). Dr. Bonura is a fitness and wellness educator; her work focuses on the benefits of gentle exercise and self-care for health and wellness promotion. She is a contributing faculty member in the Walden University College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a Professor for The Great Courses. Learn more at http://www.drkimberleebonura.com/ and http://www.chairyoga.com/ and contact Dr. Bonura at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image source: Flickr user pslee999 via Creative Commons