In just five years, the number of caregivers in the U.S. has increased from 43.5 million to 53 million, according to 2020 data from the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP. That means one in five Americans is currently a family caregiver. In tandem with the increase in number, more family caregivers reported their own health is suffering—with 23% saying their health is worse—compared to the 2015 survey results. What can be done to help avoid an increase in caregiver burnout?
If the downward trend in caregiver health continues alongside the upward trend in the number of caregivers, self-care is perhaps more vital than ever. In this resource guide, we’ll show you what self-care really means — beyond bubble baths and meditation — and how to access it daily, not just a few times a year to help you avoid caregiver burnout.
What Does Self-Care Really Mean
At its simplest, self-care means “to care for oneself.” In a way, we do self-care every day without even realizing it: taking a shower, putting on clean clothes, eating a meal and going to bed. But caregivers often need to go above and beyond the basics to address their mental health. This can feel difficult. Even simple self-care tasks are often overlooked because the caregiver is consumed with caring for their loved one. Still, in order to preserve wellness and maintain health, you cannot ignore your own needs. This is especially important when you’re under stress, as most caregivers are.
Restorative self-care doesn’t happen without action and intention. And no one else can do it for you. That’s why the first step in preserving caregiver health involves a mindset shift: You must make your health a priority. You cannot be a caregiver without doing self-care. To care for someone else, you must also care for yourself.
Small Steps: How to Incorporate Self-Care Into Every Day Life
Caregivers become so accustomed to focusing on others that shifting their mindset to their own needs feels unnatural, uncomfortable and maybe even selfish. You may feel guilty about wanting to do something for yourself. You might feel burdened by the thought of completing one more task during an already jam-packed day.
Good news! Even small bursts of self-care scattered throughout the day can add up to a big difference in your wellbeing. They can keep you on a path to renewal and away from burnout territory.
Here are seven small steps to grow a new habit of intentional, daily self-care. Start with one a day and then incorporate another when you’re ready. Once a day:
- Take a five-minute walk, no matter the weather. Put on a raincoat and grab an umbrella if need be. Just move and get a change of scenery. Breathe the fresh air and literally step away from your caregiving responsibilities for 300 straight seconds.
- Eat your meal or snack before you serve your loved one.
- Take something off your list that can wait, like doing the dishes or making your bed.
- Put your phone in another room or on “Do Not Disturb” mode for an hour. Or turn it off altogether.
- Put on something that makes you feel like you’re put together. It could be a favorite pair of earrings, casual shoes instead of slippers, jeans instead of sweatpants, etc.
- Call or text someone who always makes you feel better, whether you talk for five minutes or 55.
- Jot down a few things that made you smile in the past week. You could also write down a few things that may have stirred up difficult feelings or emotions.
These micro-actions serve as a springboard into more consistent self-care habits. They can deliver so much more than just the occasional spa day. They also help you stay connected to your identity outside of being a caregiver. Because, in addition to the risks of caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue, many also end up feeling depressed and isolated as they lose touch with their pre-caregiving selves.
Four Dimensions of Self-Care (You Need Them All)
To establish daily self-care habits, you have to find what works best for you and what helps you feel like your best pre-caregiver self. But you also have to make sure there’s a balance in the types of self-care you’re doing.
According to the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (CTRI), there are four key dimensions of self-care: emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual. To practice effective self-care, you must tend to all aspects of the “self” that need nourishment.
Here are a few examples of self-care in each dimension:
Setting healthy boundaries, spending time with people who fill you up, surrounding yourself with positive people and messages
Healthy eating, exercising, drinking plenty of water, getting restful sleep
Talk therapy, journaling, meditation, personal reflection time
Practicing mindfulness, cultivating gratitude, spending time in nature, praying
The key here is not to get hung up on the categories. Make sure you’re caring for all the things that make you “you” — beyond just your physical body.
Planning Ahead for Longer Self-Care Breaks
Extended self-care breaks — often referred to as respite — are absolutely crucial for those who are in long-term, full-time or intensive caregiving situations. The reality of 24/7 caregiving is this: There are times when you need to completely step away from your caregiving responsibilities. You might need an entire afternoon or even a week to avoid caregiver burnout.
For the already maxed-out caregiver, planning for such an excursion takes an extra level of intentional time and energy. This is why many caregivers put it off until they hit crisis mode, or they experience depression, poor physical health or all of the above. This is another reason the daily micro-actions are so important. They help free up some bandwidth and make room for respite.
Act now — Get to know the general, physical and emotional warning signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout so you can conduct regular self-checks. The goal? To be more mindful of when you’re nearing caregiver burnout. Then you’ll know you need to do more self-care or take an extended caregiving break.
Short Breaks Are Beneficial Too
Again, even with extended breaks, it’s important to start small so you can feel successful.
Start with a few hours off every month—or even an hour a week—during which you prioritize your own health and well-being. Delegate care responsibilities to a trusted friend or family member, or partner with a home care agency or private duty care companion.
Once you’ve established regular time off—even just an hour a week—you may want to plan ahead for a day of respite. Spend the day with your spouse, with friends or alone. Whatever feels like it would be most restful to you, honor that in the way you spend this essential time of renewal.
If you’re not able to enlist the help of family, friends or a home care provider for respite, some senior living communities offer short-term stays. Search national databases like A Place for Mom, Caring.com and Care.com for these types of listings in your area. You can also search AARP’s local resources and solutions hub or check out local home care agencies to bring caregiving support into your or a loved one’s home.
Act now: Check out this Respite Locator from the Arch National Respite Network and Resource Center to see what’s available near you.
More Resources for Self-Care Success
AARP has invaluable resources for caregivers, including a piece on daily acts of self-care that ease caregiver stress. In addition, their collection of articles on mental health—covering topics like mindfulness to tips on preventing a panic attack—offer practical advice for a variety of situations.
And check out these helpful articles from our blog:
- Virtual Tours: Just a Click Away — Take a mental vacation without leaving your living room.
- How to Fall Asleep Fast and Sleep Better — This step-by-step guide can help you get more restful sleep.
- Caring for Multiple People at a Time — Tips for delegating the heavy responsibilities of complex caregiving in order to lighten your load.
Your job as a caregiver is so valuable, and it’s dependent on your own health. To be a well-adjusted and effective caregiver, prioritize daily self-care actions and plan for regular extended breaks to avoid caregiver burnout.
Are you a caregiver? Tell us about your experiences with self-care, both positive and negative. How have you recognized you were on your way to caregiver burnout? What’s been the biggest challenge in caring for yourself while caring for others?