Taking care of a loved one with special needs can be exhausting and stressful. Often due to the lack of outside help, a devotion to the person needing care, or the tunnel vision that can accompany exhaustion, caretakers don't take care of themselves.
But they must. Failure to do so can lead to burnout, injury or illness. If you are the caregiver, any of these results will harm your ability to care for your loved one.
Here are some ways to take care of yourself and make sure you can take care of your loved one. The list is adapted from New York Times columnist Jane Brody's excellent column, "Caring for Family, Caring for Yourself."
- Take a break every day. Make sure you have some down time to relax, whether it's watching television, reading the newspaper, or calling a friend. Make sure you do at least one thing for yourself every day.
- Take a break every week. If possible, get out of the house at least once a week to do something you want to do -- go to the movies, have dinner with friends, whatever works for you. If you cannot get someone to cover for you, have friends over to your house.
- Get respite. Take a break of at least a week at least once a year. You can hire help in the house or arrange for a close friend or family member to take your loved one into their home.
- Get regular exercise. It's necessary for your health and to moderate any stress you may be feeling. If you can't get out of the house to exercise, buy or rent a stationary bicycle or other exercise equipment.
- Eat well. Make sure you stay healthy and have sufficient energy to do what you need to for your loved one.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep will sap your patience and reserves, making it more difficult for you to provide the care you would like to give your loved one.
- Join a support group. While you may or may not be in this alone, you're not the only one in this situation. Others are going through similar experiences. Here are sources for finding support groups: the Caregiver Action Network (www.caregiveraction.org) and the Family Caregiver Alliance and its online support group (www.caregiver.org).
- Consult with a special needs planner. In order to access many of the programs that can help your family member, they will have to qualify financially. A special needs planner can help you qualify for these benefits. In addition, make sure you don't get hit with a double financial whammy of losing years of earnings while you're caring for your family member and losing his or her assets due to squabbles with other family members or Medicaid estate recovery. Also, you may be entitled to some pay by the state for the care you are providing.
- Lotsa Helping Hands. Check out www.lotsahelpinghands.com as a resource for getting volunteer help in your community and coordinating the help your family and friends already provide.
In short, think of the care you are providing as a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself and conserve your energy for the long-term. Too much stress and exhaustion won't help your loved one.