caregiverBefore you became a caregiver for another adult, aiming for life balance was probably already a struggle. You’d heard the media experts in 4-minute TV segments make it sound so important and simple to make time for yourself, exercise, have a set weekly date with the spouse, all the while raising well-adjusted, high-performing offspring.

But here’s your reality. With tight budgets and time, the scheduled Friday night date gets missed because of the week’s backlog, exhaustion, and the soccer uniform that needs washing before Saturday’s 8am game.

Now add a new layer of responsibility that many will come to know well – caring for either an elderly or unwell adult. The kids, spouse, and job don’t go away and even if you’re an experienced adult caregiver you will be on a learning curve with the financial, physical, emotional, or legal nuances specific to each situation.

When you see those 4-minute segments now, you’ll laugh – or you’ll cry.

I qualify now as a real life caregiving “expert”, not just talking the talk but walking the walk, providing care for several family members over a 25-year span. I’ve mostly enjoyed the intimate moments and rewards, and over time I’ve learned a thing or two or more about handling my own stress and wellbeing while caring for others. Here’s my tested, real world advice.

Most important of all, learn to manage your stress level.

Each person will handle this differently. In my case, my tendency is to look to solve any problem put in front of me. In caregiving, I carried a lot of stress as my brain regularly looped in fruitless circles looking for the solution for each emotionally loaded unsolvable problem I faced. One day it finally dawned on me that illness or death were beyond my control and sometime there simply was no achievable solution . My stress was easier to manage when I accepted knowing I simply couldn’t fix or solve everything. What was achievable was I could still be helpful, loving, and caring when it was welcomed most.

On a lighter note, most caregivers have random free moments. Use them to “play” or relax. My things are sudoko puzzles, “Words With Friends”, or checking Facebook. Actively engaging your brain in something other than problems is an easy way to regularly de-stress with minimal effort – one minute at a time.

Do what you believe to be right.

Your gut has to guide you. You will likely encounter differing opinions or conflict with the person you’re caring for, siblings, spouse, medical providers, or others. If you are the PRIMARY caregiver, fairly listen to people but if you understand the situation better than they do and believe something to be true, stand up for what is right. If others have valid points to consider, change or modify your position appropriately. Try to be even keeled and avoid needless confrontation, but don’t cave in to an important wrong decision for simplicity’s sake. Never lose your internal compass… if you do you will become hopelessly lost in the day-to-day challenges and required decision making.

Recognize your own worth.

Not everybody can do what you do. What you’re doing is among the most noble of human actions. We give honor to good citizens: veterans, teachers, police, and nurses. You might not be paid or honored by others, but when you look in the mirror it’s ok and healthy to recognize the value inside you.

Maintain special relationships with planned escapes.

Spouses, best friends, and family will likely feel neglected or lonely for your presence and are making sacrifices too. If you can, consider a cruise or a special vacation away where you mentally and physically escape the caregiving environment for connection and closeness with the other people who matter to you. Be intentional about making that planned time only for you and your travel partner(s). The value is more than the actual time away – there’s the anticipation before and the memories after.

You might have to ask another family member or friend to take your place for a week or two. If nobody can help, consider Respite Care, which is available at many assisted living communities for short-term stays.

Have guilt-free time off when it presents itself.

Expect the unexpected and to plan by the seat of your pants. Your balanced life will not follow schedules well. Some days will be long and difficult. If days turn out easier and a big chunk of time magically presents itself, feel no guilt or worry treating yourself to whatever makes you happy with that free time. It’s yours. Let everything and everyone else go. This will seem obvious to everybody but a caregiver… there’s normally something they “should” be doing and it’s uncomfortable to not be using that time for a known purpose.

Let some things slide, but prioritize your health “Musts”.

Let’s face it… some things will fall through the cracks, but some things carry big consequences that have low day-to-day urgency. Prioritize in writing what things must happen in your own self-care. If colon cancer runs strongly in your family, a timely colonoscopy is a must. An annual check up is a must. Know that you’re as precious as the people you care for.