On commercial airline flights, safety instructions always intone the sage advice: "Please put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else." Airline personnel know: Without taking care of your own needs, you won't be able to help anyone else.
In much the same way, caring for yourself is a crucial — yet often forgotten — part of caring for your loved one with a spinal cord injury (SCI). Family Caregiver Alliance reports that caregiver health can decline over time, particularly when providing a high amount of daily care.
Look After Your Physical Health
It's important to create a balance between caring for someone else and caring for yourself. Taking steps to protect your physical well-being will ward off illness and enable you to be a better family caretaker. Some ways to take care of your health include:
- Get enough sleep. The Mayo Clinic recommends seven to nine hours per night for adults.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly, even if you can only fit in 10 or 15 minutes at a time. If it's been a while, learn how to ease back into exercise.
- Attend to your own healthcare needs by setting and attending regular check-ups. Don't ignore symptoms that concern you.
Asking for — and Accepting — Help
Your loved one relies on you to get through the tasks of daily living.
Depending on the location and severity of their spinal injury, you may help them with bathing, dressing, toileting, changing positions to prevent bed sores, preparing meals, managing pain and following a physical therapy regimen.
Add in your own needs and somewhere, something's likely got to give. But that doesn't mean tasks have to fall by the wayside. Often, friends and relatives want to help, but they're not sure how. Reaching out for help on specific tasks can alleviate your workload and help you avoid stress and exhaustion.
Talk to your support to see who's willing to help out with tasks such as:
- Picking up a few things from the grocery store or the pharmacy.
- Taking your loved one for a short outing a few times a week.
- Caring for pets.
- Filling out insurance paperwork.
- Cooking meals or folding laundry.
Make Time for Yourself
When caring for a loved one with an SCI, it can be hard to find time for yourself. And if you manage to carve out that time, you may feel you're neglecting others. Learning to take time off without feeling guilty is critical for caregiver health.
Here are some ways to recharge yourself:
- Line up some friends and family to provide respite time.
- Preserve time each day to do something that makes you happy.
- Participate in self-nurturing activities, such as taking a warm bath, reading a good book or taking a walk.
- Remember that when your needs are taken care of, your loved one will benefit also.
- Connect with caregiving resources in your community. Caregiving services such as meal delivery, transportation or housekeeping may be available and free up some time for you.
Being a family caregiver can be extremely rewarding. It can also be stressful. Worry, exhaustion and continuous demands can take their toll, leading to chronic stress and possible ill health. Learning to reduce your stress will lessen your risk for developing health issues of your own. A few ideas:
- Learn how to meditate.
- Try stress-reducing movements, such as yoga or tai chi.
- Laugh with a friend or find other ways to boost your mood.
- Cultivate mindfulness, which is the act of living in the present moment.
- Set realistic goals.
- Seek support by staying connected with family and friends or join a support group with other family caregivers.
Caring for someone with SCI demonstrates your love and commitment. Remember, you still matter. When you care for yourself, you're better equipped to care for your loved one, and you'll both be able to live a full life.