Selfcare advice

Family members, friends, even neighbours often find themselves caring for a loved one and not even realising that they are officially a ‘carer’.

If you are providing unpaid care or support to someone you love on a regular basis, then you a carer and, you are not alone. In fact, ABS found there was a jaw-dropping 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia, providing over $1 billion per week of value to the Australian economy (Carers Australia, 2015).

Being a carer matters in many ways and can be very rewarding. But, for most, it is also a demanding and challenging role. Along with the physiological stress of the change of relationship dynamics (in some cases child becoming the parent), providing care over time can take a personal toll on your health, well-being and your relationship.

But how do you balance your own needs against those of someone relying on you, sometimes 24/7?

Here are some tips on the importance of putting yourself first to safeguard your own health and also that of your person you are caring for. It also ensures you can provide your invaluable support, avoid carer burnout and preserve your relationship.

Start with saying “carer burnout is a real thing”

Realising you are a carer is a step in itself. Approaching this role with your own health in mind. The goal to maintain the care you provide starts with the realisation that yes, carer burnout and stress are real things and can pose serious health risks.

We often think of burnout as something that happens to busy executives with demanding jobs. But it can happen in any role we take on in life. Burnout is characterised by a person feeling emotionally and physically exhausted as a result of experiencing prolonged periods of stress. It often comes on slowly and unnoticed and may lead ultimately to people being unable to continue providing care.

Carers often find themselves ‘dropped into’ their new roles with little time to prepare and understand what the change means. They are usually highly empathetic people with an equally high sense of personal responsibility making carers prone to feeling overwhelmed, undervalued or unappreciated.

From the get-go, watch out for the signs of carer stress and take the time to notice changes like:

  • big emotional swings – sad one moment, furious the next
  • small things are bothering you that wouldn’t normally
  • an ongoing negative or cynical attitude
  • feeling like you never do enough and the workload is insurmountable
  • catching lots of flus and bugs
  • feeling like you don’t have the time to do anything for yourself, and
  • experiencing physical symptoms like headaches or weight loss / weight gain.

Carer burnout is not inevitable – but acknowledging it can help you learn to notice stress signs, look after yourself and protect your relationship. Make sure you plan ahead so you can continue to provide support to your loved one well into the future.

Set the boundaries

Those who have been carers for some time often say it would have been great to talk about the relationship dynamics right from the start and establish some boundaries or rules.

The carer relationship is a partnership that needs to safeguard the well-being of both parties to preserve it.

Setting these boundaries might take the form simply of a discussion or it could mean a more formal writing down of agreed rules and definitions.

It also marks a point in time where you both feel things have changed and will help you plan for further change and set the tone for a collaborative approach. Often just having an agreement, even in an informal way, will help establish that the carer relationship is a partnership that needs to safeguard the well-being of both parties to preserve it.

Boundaries also help when you need to say ‘no’ in a positive way to carve out time for yourself and be assured this will be understood in the right way.

An independent person can really help with this process, like a counsellor. Carers Australia offers a free National Carer Counselling program. You can connect with your local state carers association via the Carers Australia website

A date with yourself

It can be a cliché, but finding time for yourself in the middle of navigating the needs of someone you care for is super important. But it does take a conscious effort.

At the ground level this means regularly making time for healthy eating, exercise, getting a good night’s sleep. It is also about purposely prioritising activities that are important to you. This will help you to maintain your sense of control, purpose and your individuality in the relationship.

Time management experts recommend you prioritise ‘me time’ every day, similar to fuelling up a car for a long road trip. Keep this appointment with yourself as a top priority no matter what comes up. Spend it doing something you enjoy or just relaxing.

It is also important to regularly make plans and set goals to help you keep on track with your own goals, wishes and desires – and keep the tank full!

Ongoing research into mental health and well-being is discovering the many benefits of practising mindfulness to help regulate stress and manage emotional stability and improve happiness.

We know now that it can be highly beneficial to take just 5 to 10 minutes of the day to practice mindfulness with techniques like meditation. Meditation involves setting aside your thoughts and practising relaxation in a disciplined way. Over time it will help you attune better to your own needs and help you achieve greater balance. 

Make your breaks regular, agreed on and formal. Ensure, when putting together support services for your family, that you arrange for regular respite care hours and consider all your respite options, not just those in the program you have. Our Carers Support page is a great start to understanding what might be available to you. Spend your respite hours meeting your own needs where you can.

Be open to new things

Often we get stuck thinking things should be a certain way in life and feeling a personal sense of duty or responsibility – this can lead to feeling trapped.

Breaking out of thought patterns can really help you de-stress and imagine different possibilities for yourself and your relationship.

Why not set yourself the task to try something completely new or challenging? Think outside of the box. Why not try a fitness class, a mystery holiday, learn to paint, try a new job… the choices are endless. Doing something unexpected can lead to unexpected benefits, new friendships, new skills, invigorate a relationship and offer a refreshing change in mindset.

Ask for help when you need it

Busy carers often forget to ask for help when they need it. So be confident, put your hand up and ask questions.

Start simple and consider reaching out to family, friends and neighbours to help out where they can. Don’t assume they can see that you need help.

Educate yourself about what formal help is available. There are many services available through various government subsidised programs. They can help support you and your loved one’s needs and provide respite hours for you on a regular basis.

Check out our great summary of these programs, including the Home Care Packages program. There are also various respite options under the Commonwealth Home Support Program on our Carers Support page.

Talk to your family health practitioners like your GP, social worker or counsellor. Ask what support is available to you. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own situation. There are many unique ways in which people find themselves providing care.

Consider connecting with other carers for support, friendship or just to share your story. Check out the Carers Australia website to connect with your local carers association and carers support group. Or call 1800 242 636 to find out what is happening in your local area.

Also make sure you check out the various financial supports available such as Carers Allowance. The Australian Government website Carers Gateway has some great information on this and lots of other carer related subjects.

Our Care Journal has some great support resources for carers when you ‘flip’ to the carer dashboard. Check out Yoga Australia’s special offer for everyone who downloads the app. Also take a look at Home Care Heroes and Umps Health.

(from article published by St Ives Home Care Blog 3 July 2017)

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