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September 07, 2018

Self-care for caregivers: 4 principles to live by

Caregiving Self-Care

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Senior father in wheelchair and young son Halfpoint/

When I began working at Independence Blue Cross, my personal health goals were lofty and ambitious. I planned on starting each day with a smoothie, bringing a picture-perfect mason jar salad for lunch, drinking six glasses of water, and taking regular “brain breaks” to stretch throughout the day.

I was turning over a new leaf! Why? I had spent the previous 15 years working in education, responsible at any given time for 18 to 125 young people. All that caregiving, on top of caring for my family and my own chronic pain condition, had left me burnt out. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Are You Part of the Sandwich Generation?

Forty-seven percent of Americans are part of the “sandwich generation” — those in their 40s and 50s who are helping to care for aging parents while raising or supporting their own children. For those who are caregivers to small children or aging parents, finding that bit of energy to care for yourself can be tough. It seems that every magazine has a splashy, full-color article on how just “a few tips” can change your whole outlook on life, but let’s be real: if snacking on tiny handfuls of raw almonds could really solve all our problems, we would all be rich, healthy, and well-rested.

Caregiving is backbreaking work. Between work, school, housework, meal planning, and doctors’ appointments, how can you take care of yourself? The answer, for me, is imperfectly. I’m not following someone else’s formula — our lives just don’t work that way. So, I ditched the lofty Pinterest-perfect daily routine and instead, I follow four simple principles for imperfect self-care:

4 Principles of Imperfect Self-Care

  1. Lead with your feelings. Caregiving often causes you to set aside your own needs. Sometimes, I feel ashamed about the fact that I forget to put my own oxygen mask on first. Why am I missing the obvious signs of my own needs, only to crash later? Leading with your feelings means checking in physically and emotionally. You can start small by asking yourself simple questions like whether you feel warm enough, or whether you feel thirsty. With time, you’ll find it easier to check in about bigger things, like whether you need some alone time, or some dark leafy greens, or a hand getting the kids to soccer.
  2. Set some goals. Are you chilly more often than you expected? Set a goal to check the weather before you head out each day, and to choose an outfit not just because it’s mostly clean but because it’ll make your body feel good. Is there a food you’re craving? Resolve to fit it into your diet more, or, if it’s a delicious treat, find half an hour to enjoy it with the people you love — or all by yourself. The best goals are concrete, so try committing to getting those greens in four days a week, or enjoy that ice cream cone at 3 p.m. on Friday.
  3. Find a buddy. It takes a village, right? Committing to self-care with a buddy can really improve your chances of sticking to behavior changes. You can put that 6 p.m. walk on your calendar, but if the workday slides dangerously into dinnertime, you might be inclined to skip it. However, if you’re meeting a friend on the pavement, you’re less likely to bail. Friends keep us accountable and give us something to look forward to.
  4. Don’t beat yourself up. We live in a world where our workdays are often much longer than eight hours, and our social safety net is shrinking. You may be responsible for caring for yourself, your clients, your parents, and your kids, but you shouldn’t be shouldering all that alone. You’re doing your best, and when you cut corners, do it with no regrets. Get groceries delivered. Snooze through your early morning workout. Trade meditation for an episode of Atlanta. You earned it, and tomorrow is another day.

Embracing Imperfection

As for me? I’m counting today as a win. I’ve got leftover Indian food for lunch, and I squeezed in ten minutes with a meditation app during my trolley commute. I might not drink six bottles of water today, but I’ll probably manage four now that my colleague and I have started reminding each other to refill between meetings. And I’ve got some time at the pool on my schedule for tomorrow.

I like the person I am when I’m busy helping the people I care about, and if that means I’m never going be the kind of person who starts the day with a shot of green juice, so be it. I’m getting my self-care in – imperfectly.

This content was originally published in IBX Insights.

About Mara Hughes

I work in Medicare Marketing at Independence and blog about navigating life with chronic illness and other issues relevant to caregivers and health care consumers of all ages.

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