How to care for yourself while caring for others
Are you an unpaid carer looking after a family member and finding yourself burnt out? Perhaps you are juggling caring for elderly parents with the demands of a family or career? Or maybe you are only just realising that you are an unpaid carer? This article covers the definition of a caregiver, practical support you can access, and ideas for how you can care for yourself whilst still caring for another. Please be reassured: there is help available and people who understand.
There are a range of ways an individual becomes a caregiver. Some circumstances, such as a terminal illness diagnosis, can turn people rapidly into carers. This may be the case for you. Alternatively, if the care needs of the person you are supporting have increased steadily over time, it may only be now that you’re realising the situation has progressed beyond the usual help family members provide for each other. Caring is a challenging process, especially when it is a long-term commitment or the person you’re caring for has additional needs such as complex mental health issues, dementia or addictions.
Definition of a caregiver
The leading British charity Citizens Advice gives the following as a definition of a caregiver :
- you do things like helping someone to wash, dress and eat; taking them to regular appointments, doing their shopping or keeping them company
- you aren’t paid to look after the person you’re caring for
- you spend a lot of time caring for the person – there’s no legal definition of this, but it could mean anything from a few hours a day, to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- you may or may not live with the person you’re caring for.
If this is you, know you are not alone. Research suggests that by 2022 the number of unpaid carers in the UK had risen to 10.6 million, meaning that an astonishing 1 in 5 adults in the UK is providing care . The Covid-19 pandemic is thought to have created 4.5 million extra unpaid carers . It is likely that the number of unpaid caregivers is higher, due to the difficulties of recognising them, and perhaps you are one of these unseen carers.
Access practical and financial help
It is important as an unpaid carer that you realise that there are resources available to you.
You should be able to access practical, emotional, and financial support through different charities and government schemes. Researching this information whilst caring for someone can seem a hurdle to overcome but expert charities such as Citizens Advice, Carers UK and The Carers Trust will be able to guide you. Check out their websites which are listed below or contact them by phone or email for more details. You deserve to have the help you need because your life is important too.
How caring can affect you
Caregivers often become overwhelmed by the demands of their situation. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion is referred to as caregiver ‘burnout’  and ‘compassion fatigue’ is used to signal much the same ideas . The toil of caring means that carers often become sick themselves . Researchers believe this is due to a combination of depression and stress, which have a negative effect on the caregiver’s immune and cardiovascular systems .
Depression is a common negative effect of being a carer , particularly if the individual being cared for has dementia . The mental health charity Mind suggests that caregivers can feel frustrated, guilty, and angry . The extra needs of caregivers have been recognised by the NHS, so speak to your doctor as they can offer you extra advice and support, free vaccinations (such as the flu jab) and signpost you to other sources of support .
Besides accessing the expert advice mentioned above, there are ways to help care for yourself whilst you are caring for others.
Accepting help from willing friends and family members can be one way of caring for yourself . Some people find this hard through a sense of pride, guilt, or vulnerability. Always remember that you are only one person dealing with a difficult situation – you can’t do it all and neither should you try. So, don’t feel the burden should sit only on your shoulders; if others offer help, accept it. The experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest being prepared with a list of ways you need assistance. It is then easier for the helper to choose something suitable, such as grocery shopping, running errands or cooking you a meal .
Join a support group
Being with people who understand the challenges of being a caregiver can be hugely valuable. In a 2021 study, researchers found that support groups can improve the quality of life for caregivers, particularly in relation to anxiety . The exchange of experiences and ability to talk freely can validate feelings that may otherwise be repressed . Useful information and advice can also be given by other members who have more experience of seeking help . A Google search for the name of your town and ‘carers support group’ can help you find groups local to you. You could also ask your surgery because they should have details too.
Carve out even five minutes just for yourself
The importance of finding some time for yourself cannot be over-emphasised. Burnout or compassion fatigue is very real and caring for yourself can help protect against it to a certain degree. Of course, it can be difficult when there are so many demands on your time and energy. The advice though is to try and find even five minutes of time for yourself.
You could try the relaxation techniques suggested by Mind , or immerse yourself in something that transports you out of your surroundings. Watching trashy TV, dancing to a favourite song, praying or meditating, reading a historical novel, laughing at memes online – choose anything that allows your mind a little bit of escapism and relief.
Caring for yourself is hard but essential
It is so important to care for yourself when caring for others. Use the information in this article and the list of charities below to ensure that you are receiving all the support you can. It may be useful to access professional therapy that can help you with your situation.
Having a time and space just for yourself where you are free to talk – and vent, if you like – can be so beneficial. At My Family Psychologist we understand the challenges of being a caregiver. We can work with you to listen and to help with strategies. Call Luisa for a free and confidential chat on 07801 079555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be happy to support you through these difficult circumstances.
By Fiona Ruth
Age UK: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/
Carers UK: https://carersuk.org
Citizens Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/
The Carers Trust: https://carers.org/
- Schulz, R., & Sherwood, P. R. (2008). Physical and mental health effects of family caregiving. The American journal of nursing, 108(9 Suppl), 23–27. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NAJ.0000336406.45248.4c