May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so we thought we could share some tips and tricks specifically for caregivers maintaining their mental health on top of all other responsibilities. Here’s a few tried and true necessities:
- Stress ball. Sounds basic, but it’s helpful to have a coping tool that can expel anxious energy. When we get anxious or stressed, we tense our muscles and hold that stress in our bodies. Repeatedly squeezing a stress ball gives that tension an outlet from your nervous system, not to mention give your hand a little exercise! Stress balls have many other benefits: it improves your blood circulation, lowers blood pressure, and improves your concentration. If you can’t adopt anything else on this list, this is the one thing you absolutely should have.
- Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day can do wonders for your mental health and help establish your own routine. Exercise time can be whatever you need, whether it’s a brisk walk around the neighborhood, light range of motion stretches, or lifting weights at the gym you love. Listen to music or an interesting podcast if you like.
- Sleep. A full night’s rest is important for recharging your batteries, but it’s most effective if it’s uninterrupted. If you find yourself getting up more than once a night to help the person you care for, it might be helpful to have another person come spend the night once or twice a week. That way, the person you care for still gets their needs met, and you get a chance to sleep peacefully without fear of interruption.
- Journal. Writing down the events of the day and how you feel about them can help you organize your thoughts, reflect on the day, and set intentions for the future. Journaling consistently will also help you notice patterns in your thoughts, ask yourself questions, and remind yourself of what truly matters to you.
- Calm morning or evening ritual. Have some tea, do some yoga stretches (Youtube has many guided videos) and play your favorite instrumental music as you get ready for what’s ahead. This is also a perfect time to write in your journal.
- Respite time. If you have people in your life offering help, do your best to accept it and let them know specifically what you need off your plate. It can be anything from doing the dishes to spending time with the person you care for so you can have interrupted time to take a walk, get to that doctor’s appointment, or whatever else you need to do. If you don’t have anyone nearby to help, you can search for your local Area Agency on Aging to find resources near you (or hire us!)
- Activities or hobbies that are unrelated to caregiving and are just for you. This can be puzzles, crafting, baking, bird watching, a scenic drive, whatever you enjoy that only serves you. Make time for this when you know you won’t be interrupted.
- Regular meals. When we’re overwhelmed and focused on all the to-do’s of the day, one of the first things we forget about is our need to eat. To help combat this, you can develop a quick breakfast routine that takes 15 minutes or less. You can also make a big batch of your favorite lunch or dinner on Sunday and have that on reserve for the upcoming days where you only have time for the microwave. For days where it seems especially hard to bring yourself to cook, it’s completely okay to order takeout if that’s the only way you’re going to eat.
- Realistic goals. When we set goals and standards believing we can do it all like a Superhuman, we set ourselves up for feeling guilty when these goals are not met, which stresses us out and makes us lose sight of what really matters. You might plan for your 90 year old grandparent to get up early, shower, visit the doctor, and more on a tight schedule with the intention of providing good and productive care, while forgetting that your grandparent only has energy for maybe two of those things a day consistently. This leads to a constant feeling of “I didn’t do enough today, I’m failing at this, etc.” You’re not failing. The bar has just been set so high that you have to jump to reach it. The key to avoiding this is to adapt and lower your standards for how the day might go. Think about what tasks are most important for your person each day out of all the tasks you usually help with. Can they skip a shower every once in a while? Are you planning extra time for getting dressed or transitioning between activities? Is it okay if they would rather sleep than go for a walk that day? Instead of planning every minute to the tee, be open to going with the flow of each day and accept wherever the wind takes you and the person you care for. It might even lead you to have more quality time together by living in the moment.
- Support groups are not only useful for sharing your feelings and hearing others, it’s also good for building a network and exchanging ideas and advice. Especially when it comes to memory care, there is a vast array of experiences and methods. Even if you think your situation is unique, we can pretty much guarantee you’re not the only one who’s been there. You can find a local support group with your local Area Agency on Aging, social media pages, or with elder-care experts.
Remember that caregiving is HARD and often becomes a full-time job. Especially if you’re balancing caregiving and a full-time job or raising a family of your own, it’s important to recognize that what you do is a lot for anyone to handle and that you are still a human with needs to protect your mental health. It’s easy to push our own needs aside for the sake of someone else– checking in with your mental health and developing ways to help yourself is a learning process. Be patient and compassionate to yourself, because as they say, you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others.