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AARP Expert

How Caregivers Can Care for Themselves

I've been a caregiver for family and friends my entire adult life. So I know what it is to be burned out! I developed a philosophy of how to care for myself that really worked for me. And it came out of an experience I had...


I went to the gas station one day and my car was running on fumes - I mean it was really empty! I was SO relieved when I arrived as I was afraid it would just stop on the way. I filled the car up with gas and as I pulled out of the station I thought to myself, "It's so interesting that the car actually RUNS better on a FULL tank of gas!"


Well, duh, right?! But that was my "Aha!" moment - I realized that I'd been expecting myself to run on empty ALL the time and be JUST as efficient. Suddenly I understood in a new way - that was NOT realistic! So I embraced the notion that self-care is not selfish, it's just practical. I thought about what fills MY tank so I could run more efficiently and not be afraid of breaking down or completely coming to a stop. 


Here's how it worked for me. I found I have to have a blend of EACH of these categories - otherwise, it doesn't work. As I do these things I actively envision the needle on my internal fuel gauge moving towards "full"! Doing these things consciously to fill up is really key. 


1) Quick Tank Fillers: Sometimes we can't fill our car's gas tank all the way full and that's true for us too. So this is mostly what we have time for when caregiving, so do a lot of them to move the needle. Call a friend, hug, joy, walk around the block, sing, dance, be mindful (direct your mind to the current moment), do a short meditation, have coffee/tea/water, pet your animals, connect w/peers, text or Facebook, do some jumping jacks, turn on music, keep fresh flowers around you, do nothing - whatever fills you up a bit quickly.


2) Premium Fill-Ups: Plan a bit more time. Take a class or webinar, walk/hike, golf, get creative, watch TV or movie, dinner out, read, get a massage or manicure, spend time with family/friends, take a nap or do a longer meditation, attend your faith community services, tour a museum, visit a garden.


3) Tune-Ups: Breaks from caregiving. Ideally a longer break - I always aimed for at least a week a year, but try to get at least a few days not caring for anyone else (this doesn't mean take a break from caring for your husband to go care for your grandkids!). Take a vacation, go on a retreat, go to a meaningful place, visit a spa. 


4) Routine Maintenance: These are things you need on an ongoing basis, and may vary for everyone, but the basics are must-do's: Sleep (#1 priority!), healthy food, exercise, preventive health check-ups, maintain your personal identity. Other things for you may include counseling or life coaching, massage, reiki, acupuncture etc. 


Give it a try and let me know how this system works for you! It really works for me, and if I find myself showing signs of burnout I re-assess and figure out in which category I need to put more effort. 


Good-luck and take care!

Amy Goyer, AARP Family & Caregiving Expert

Author, Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving




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