Fill Your Own Cup First: How to Take Care of Yourself as a Caregiver during a Pandemic
March 10, 2021
Image courtesy of Matthias Zomer via Pexels.
Caregivers are an integral part of any healthcare system, regardless of your country. They provide the attention and assistance so many need for various reasons, in ways that are selfless and often unpaid, unassisted, and unrecognized by a society who needs them.
The pandemic has made being a caregiver all that much harder, in various ways. In this article, we’ll explore:
- Who is a caregiver?
- How the pandemic affects caregivers and their charges
- How caregivers can care for themselves
If you aren’t a caretaker-- yet-- you probably will be one day, and chances are you already know someone who is one. This article is for the caregiver in us all, be we one now or will be one later on in life.
Who is a caregiver?
Some estimates place the number of caregivers in the United States at 53 million people-- that’s 53 million people somewhere over the age of 18 (theoretically) who perform a number of services, often unpaid and out of their own time and money, for those who cannot do those things for themselves. This can start as simple as a weekly visit to help a person who cannot climb the basement steps to do laundry to wash, dry, fold, and put their clothes away. Or perhaps it's a bi-weekly grocery run for someone who can’t drive, dropping off meals, or a lift to religious services.
Then it moves on to organizing medications, joining them for doctor’s visits with your own list of questions, maybe even considering moving them into your home so you can keep a closer eye on them. Their needs become intertwined in your day-to-day, and the stress of keeping up with your life and their life begins. Eventually, you realize you’re a caregiver.
Most caregivers are employed with children, and often untrained in any medical or financial field involved in caretaking. The average caregiver is a woman who, interestingly enough, does around 50% more work than a man in the same position. Men are less likely to help the recipient get dressed, bathing, or other personal care but are more likely to help with finances or other less involved tasks, such as arranging other kinds of care.
How the pandemic affects caregivers and their charges
The pandemic has negatively affected everyone in similar ways-- lack of ability to travel means no vacations, going out and about where other people are becomes fraught with precautions and danger, and access to social, medical, and other kinds of services have longer waiting lists or are inaccessible. As a result, tempers have short fuses, burnout is rampant, and folks aren’t getting the necessary medical or social services they need when they need them (and sometimes not at all).
As we’ve reported before, depression and anxiety are at an all-time high as well due to pandemic fatigue.
Caregivers are already a section of society that are under chronic stress and at a higher risk of depression and anxiety-- the pandemic is making it worse by creating new concerns as well as heightening stressors already common amongst caregivers. Social distancing, lockdowns, and the need to generally stay away from groups of people for fear of exposure wears on nerves and increases the sense of isolation caregivers tend to suffer. It also means that some forms of support for caregivers-- such as sharing duties with another caregiver outside of the household for a break-- are pretty much out of the question.
With everyone staying at home for work and school, focusing attention on caregiving is nearly impossible. If children in the household are attending in-person school, making arrangements to keep them away from the person receiving caregiving is hard emotionally and schedule-wise.
Financial difficulties are already a burden for caregivers-- figuring out how to combine finances, or taking care of someone else’s finances as well as your own is a headache. But maybe the pandemic caused you to lose your job, and unemployment benefits have recently come under fire because the pandemic has gone on for so long. There are also more disinfectant supplies to stock, if you are exposed to Covid-19 you may not have insurance or pto or sick days-- or you could run out of them. And while the Covid-19 test should be free, the doctor’s visit and lab may have their own fees. Groceries cost more as food is harder to obtain, and if you are high-risk or need to limit your time around people, food delivery services charge fees on top of the need to tip the delivery person.
Additionally, necessary medical or social services for your caregiving charge-- as well those that support the caregiver-- are limited, delayed, or even cancelled. In Covid-19 hot spots, surgeries are often on hold completely. If they’re not, extra precautions include a isolation period before the surgery, as well as a Covid-19 test, all of which have their own financial and mental/emotional costs to both caregiver and charge. If hospitalization does occur, it not only includes the high cost of American healthcare, it also means higher emotional and mental health costs as hospitals restrict or even forbid anyone from visiting.
There’s also the point that caregivers are now the primary front line worker for their charge’s care. That changes the emotional and mental dynamics of the relationship between the caregiver and their charge. If the caregiver is a daughter and the charge her mother, the daughter may start to treat and view her mother as a patient or client only-- this is a defense mechanism that compartmentalizes the emotional and mental difficulties the caregiver experiences so that they can “get through” or “get on with things” with minimal turmoil.
Which may include the difficulties involved if the patient doesn’t understand what is going on. Dementia, Alzhiemer’s, and mental developmental issues (such as Down's Syndrome) can prevent a patient from comprehending what’s going on and makes everything harder-- from wearing a mask properly and constantly to avoid adult daycare programs that could become exposure hotspots to temperamental (perhaps even physical) outbursts when they are prevented from doing something for fear of exposure.
So it’s no wonder that our society’s caregivers are stressed, strained, exhausted, and perhaps even near their breaking point.
Self-support for caregivers
So how can caregivers take care of themselves, especially when support systems are limited in their ability to help?
In many ways, our sense of empowerment stems from having a sense of control over our world. With the pandemic having turned a lot of that upside-down, it can help to recognize and focus on the parts of your life-- and your charge’s life-- that you DO have control over. You need to be very clear about this, and don’t discount small things from the list, either. A well-defined list of things you can control helps provide you with a gentle reminder that you can and are making good decisions and that you haven’t lost your power over your life. Recognize also that while there may be things you cannot control overall, there may be some aspects of that variable that you do have control over. For example, you cannot control the lack of physical company due to the virus precautions, but you can control Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and scheduling time to have virtual hangouts. You cannot control when a doctor’s office won’t see in-person visitations for non-emergencies, but you can schedule a virtual visit or write an email to keep your doctor in the loop.
You can also control your exposure to the things in your life that make you happy and put up boundaries for exposure to things that don’t. For example, while you cannot let down your vigilance about mask wearing and other Covid-19 precautions, you can control how much news you read about it and make a rule at the dinner table to not discuss it for more than 5 minutes. You can also control your playlist, the books you have the time to at least try to read, or when you take a few minutes for breathwork, mantras, or prayer.
Caregiving can be constant. Remember to give yourself short breaks-- which are also great times to squeeze in a little bit of slow deep breathing or an affirmation-- frequently, rather than fewer, longer ones. Do take longer ones, if you can. But try to take a few more breaks than usual, keeping them short-- about 5 to 10 minutes, perhaps. Or even just 5 or less.
Music and food both have a huge effect on mood, and are fairly easy to fit into a routine. Cue up playlists, artists, and songs that make you feel good and sing if you can. And we don’t mean “have talent” by “can”-- we mean if it’s appropriate for the time and place. Try to eat well and limit processed foods whenever possible. If you must eat processed foods, try to pick healthier options-- for example, if you really must eat a microwavable meal, try to make two-thirds of it vegetables.
And always remember that mental health professionals are there for you, and there is a type of professional and therapy that is right for you. If you don’t want to take medicines, then work with a psychologist instead of a psychiatrist and be very clear that you don’t want medicines. The great thing about most therapy is that it can be done virtually-- sometimes even over the phone as you cook dinner or drive home from work-- with great ease.
As a caretaker, it’s important to fill your own cup first. Otherwise, you won’t have anything left to serve others. This may feel weird at first-- maybe even feel impossible to do-- but it’s incredibly integral to your ability to both live a quality life and be of caregiver service.
If you have any self-care tips, please share them with us in the comments!