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How to care for yourself while caring for someone else

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Written by Denise Bilodeau

If you are supporting a loved one through a serious illness, you are a caregiver. You may think you are doing something natural — just caring for someone you love — but you are making the choice to focus on the needs of someone else, often at the expense of your own wellbeing.

One of the most important, and often forgotten, things you can do as a caregiver is to care for yourself. “Self-care” is any activity that you do that helps you maintain your physical, mental or emotional health and in so doing allows you to give of yourself to others.

The instructions you receive before an airplane takes off are probably the best example of self-care. Before any flight, you are advised that if there is an emergency and you need oxygen, put your own mask on first before helping others. This reason is simple: if you pass out as a result of a lack of oxygen, you can’t help others. The same can be said for caregiving: if you do not take care of yourself, if you “burnout” or become sick due to lack of sleep, poor diet, etc., you make yourself incapable of helping the person next to you.

Caregivers may think taking time for themselves to rest or spend time with their friends makes them selfish because there is someone who needs them – this is not so. Caring for yourself ensures that you have the strength and ability to continue caring for others.

Self-care tips for caregivers

Eat healthy – maintaining a balanced diet is one of the best ways to maintain your health and energy.

Exercise – this may sound like the last thing you want to do when you are already physically drained from your caregiving responsibilities, but it is one of the best things you can do for yourself. A brisk walk, a yoga session, a swim at the local pool…it doesn’t have to be Olympic-quality, just something that gets your heart rate up and your mind off the tasks at hand. If you can do some kind of activity outside, even better – the sun and fresh air will renew you.  Try scheduling an activity with a friend so that you have less chance of cancelling and the added benefit of their company.

Take care of your own health – caregivers are prone to neglecting their own health and often fall ill as a result. Visit your own doctor and take your regular medications in order to maintain your own health. Try to learn the best way to provide physical care to your family member, such as how to assist them from a wheelchair to their bed, to prevent injuring yourself.

Plan regular breaks – make arrangements for a family member, a friend, a volunteer, or a professional to relieve you of your duties. Use that time to do something you enjoy – read a book, take a walk, or go to a movie. Reassure the person you are caring for that someone will be there to meet their needs while you are out.

Treat yourself – do something that you would have done B.C. – before caregiving – that would bring you pleasure such as a pedicure, or a massage, or night out with the guys to watch a game. Let go of the guilt you might have about wanting to feel happiness – you are entitled to have your own enjoyment and it will reinvigorate you.

Try to get enough sleep –  when we have more to do, sleep is often where we compromise. Being well rested is necessary in order for you to provide care to your family member. Try to practice good sleep hygiene, which includes trying to schedule regular bed time and waking times, taking a warm bath before bed, avoiding TV and computers before bed, and avoiding alcohol or caffeine in the evening. Oftentimes your caregiving will interrupt your nighttime sleep – when this happens, sleep when you can but stick to catnaps (eg. 20 minutes) during the day to avoid falling into a REM sleep and tricking your body into thinking it has had adequate rest and then making it difficult to get back to sleep at night.

Keep connected – it is easy to isolate yourself when your energies are necessarily focused on your family member.  Despite feeling tired or less than social, it is important to stay connected with the friends who support you. If you can’t physically get out with friends, take time each day to stay connected through email, phone or social media to ease the possible sense of isolation you might feel.

Include others – You don’t have to do it all. Let other friends and family know you need time to yourself so that they know to step in and give you that much needed break. There is never shame in asking.

Find humour – get a daily dose of humour by reading something funny or watching a comedy on TV. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Most importantly, be aware of the signs of burnout –
some signs of burnout include withdrawing from friends and family, a loss of interest in activities you enjoyed in the past, feeling, irritable, hopeless, and helpless, changes in appetite or weight, getting sick more often and overuse of use of alcohol or sleep medications.

If you see any of these signs in yourself, try any of the ideas already mentioned or reach out for professional support. is a good place to start to find caregiver supports in your area.


About the author


Denise Bilodeau

Denise Bilodeau is a social worker at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.

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