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“Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” – Eleanor Brown

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2015, there were 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia. More than 2/3 of these carers are women with an average age of 55. However, there are almost 300,000 carers under the age of 26, and more than 25 per cent of these were under the age of 15.

Many people become a carer and don’t even realise what has happened until one day they wake up exhausted. For most people, the role of carer happens when they already have a myriad of other responsibilities including work, school, university, parenting or being a partner.

It is hard to maintain a positive attitude when you haven’t slept properly in ages and if the work you do as a carer is physically demanding and every interaction you have outside the caring relationship does not acknowledge the work you do as a carer. Then there is your desire to have an identity that is not tied to your role as a carer. Being a carer can be physically and emotionally exhausting and many carers report that they find it difficult to take care of their own needs – healthy food, exercise, rest, play.

Some of the challenges of being a carer

Grief

When people take on the role of carer it often means they must ‘give up’ another part of their life that is important to them and whilst most carers say they do so willingly, there is still an element of grieving. Many carers report feeling loss at changes to the way they live their lives including:

  • Social life and friendships
  • Privacy
  • Freedom – Life might lack the spontaneity it once had. And opportunities in career and education are less easily taken advantage of
  • Sense of identity – as the focus is on the recipient of care
  • Financial security might be affected as employment options change
  • Expectations for both might go unfulfilled, or the relationship with the loved one may have changed

Health

Research conducted by Carers Australia found carers had the lowest wellbeing of any large group in Australia.

Health impacts are many and varied but include:

Physical health

Being chronically tired as a result of broken sleep and a lack of time for themselves can increase the risk of becoming unwell. Similarly, the ability to eat healthy food can also be reduced. Physical health issues such as back and neck problems are common in carers whose role requires them to lift and carry.

Emotional health

As mentioned above, many carers find themselves thrust into the caring role and may not have had a choice to do so. This lack of choice, coupled with the suddenness that often goes with becoming a carer can generate strong emotions like anger and frustration. This anger and frustration may manifest itself in the carer taking their anger and frustration out on the people around them including the person they are caring for. Feelings of guilt also frequently accompany such emotion. The incidence of depression is also high in people who fill the role of carer, along with drug and alcohol issues and in extreme cases a risk of self-harm or suicide.

Social Isolation

The demands of being a carer can impact on time with friends and family. It can also be difficult to prioritise opportunities associated with work and recreation. This can quietly erode connections with others, and even confidence socially.

Money worries

Research shows that 50% of carers are on low incomes (most likely because their caring role doesn’t allow them to fully participate in paid employment). The basics might be difficult to cover let alone the extra costs related to healthcare, travel, medications etc.

Self-care is essential

Consider for a moment the advice given prior to a plane flight. The flight attendant instructs everyone on board to “put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others”. Self-care is carers putting on their oxygen masks on first.

Advice on how to do this

The following strategies are just some of the ways in which carers can be supported to look after themselves so that they can continue with their important and essential caring duties:

1. Talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust

As a carer you need to have someone to talk to because if your symptoms of grief are not acknowledged they will build up and express themselves as feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, and physical issues such as changes in sleeping and eating.

If you haven’t got someone to share with then begin to identify who you can talk to. Get involved in a support group, open up to family, friends and service providers you feel comfortable with. Carers Queensland offers a range of information and support services specifically for people who find themselves in the role of carer.

2. Plan timeout

Fortunately, breaks are an inherent part of the Australian working culture, because we know that people are more efficient and happier when they have time out. However, it is sometimes difficult to get carers to take a break. Even though most carers have worked out how to push through the exhaustion, this isn’t useful in the long term.

It is also useful to remember that the person being cared for can also benefit from being engaged in social activities independent of their carer.

Note: If you haven’t been prioritising your self-care you may meet with resistance. So seek help if you are struggling to create new boundaries around timeout!.

  • Have a bath
  • Read a magazine in the park
  • Sit at the beach
  • Sleep
  • Catch-up with friends
  • Try something new, like yoga
  • Take a holiday

Don’t wait until someone notices you need help. Ask family or friends or organise respite care if possible.

3. Look after your health

This will require planning but it can make a big difference.

Eat well

You need to be eating healthy food regularly. Plan a way that works for you. Maybe you can cook larger portions and freeze meals for later.

Sleep

What can you change to get enough sleep? There are some common practices you can do if you are having trouble getting to sleep. Like having a routine, turning off all media an hour before sleep, and reading before bed. Try one of the herbal teas to help you relax, and pure lavender oil essence on your pillow is a wonderful way to float off to sleep. If it is unrealistic to plan for 8 hours of sleep then consider planning two four hour sleeps across a 24 hour day.

Exercise

How can you organise some regular exercise into your daily schedule? It might be a short walk – fresh air, exercise and sun can do wonders. You could use an exercise video or attend a class. Or put on your favourite music to dance to when no one is watching!

Learn how to relax

You will benefit by learning mindfulness. The Black Dog Institute has some great resources to assist. This has been found to both calm emotionally charged neural pathways and help develop new ones. There are many ways you can practice mindfulness, not necessarily sitting in the yogi pose!

Get as organised as realistically possible

If you feel in control you are less likely to be affected by stress and anxiety. It will make it easier for someone to take over when you need a break too. For example:

Keep a calendar of daily routines

Keep important information such as scripts and emergency details in one place. Have a list of what is required for when a support person steps in.

4. Be vigilant

We have covered the risk to your health, and the why and how you can take better care of yourself. But as you know this is a long distance run and not a sprint, so remain vigilant about your own needs. The best way to do this is by staying connected – in particular ensuring you have people you can speak openly with.

For more tips, listen to our coping as a carer podcast.

This blog first appeared on Envigor’s blog.

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Tracey Silvester
Tracey Silvester is Executive Manager of Envigor and has more than 25 years’ experience in health and aged care services. Tracey is committed to ensuring that our elders are able to exercise their right to choose how they live their lives regardless of their ability or function. Tracey is a Registered Nurse and has a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Management. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Australian College of Health Service Management and a surveyor with the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards.