Caregivers are constantly being told that they need to find time for themselves, whether it involves looking for respite care, taking their loved ones to an adult day care center, or just going for a short walk to get out of the house.

But, for a person who is used to taking care of someone else, finding the time to relax is often easier than actually being able to relax. Why is it so hard for caregivers to switch into “me” mode?

Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host and author of Caregiving: Eldercare Made Clear and Simple, experienced this dilemma first-hand when she became the primary caregiver for her ex-husband’s father and mother. Laverty says that she was so consumed with the need to take care of everything for her in-laws that she neglected to take care of herself in the beginning stages of her caregiving journey. This led to a brush with extreme caregiver burnout and caused her to re-think her approach to providing care.

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Why Family Caregivers Can’t Take a Break

Laverty says there are certain thoughts that may prevent a caregiver from truly disconnecting from their responsibilities and recharging. See if any of these notions have interfered with your ability to seek out and enjoy respite time:

  1. “I need to be in charge of everything to ensure my loved one receives quality care.”
    Laverty says that caregivers sometimes find it difficult to let go of their caregiving mindset—even when their mind and body are screaming at them to take a break. “You can’t oversee everything,” Laverty emphasizes. “People take on the role of caregiver thinking that they can do everything for six months, but the truth is that this role can last for years, even decades.” Thinking that you alone can handle every single aspect of a care recipient’s life in addition to your own simply isn’t sustainable.
  2. “I can’t stop worrying that something will go wrong if I’m not there.”
    When offered the opportunity to take a breather, some caregivers find that they can’t stop their minds from running through dozens of what-if scenarios. For example, what if my mother falls and I’m not there to pick her up? What if my husband has another stroke while I’m gone? These kinds of thoughts can make a caregiver incapable of relaxing, even when they’re away from the person they’re caring for.
  3. “I shouldn’t be off enjoying myself when my loved one depends on me.”
    Laverty admits that when she first started taking care of her in-laws, she put herself in the position of being “on call” all the time, despite the fact that she had access to other family members and hired caregivers who were able to help. Guilt can make a caregiver feel as though they’re being selfish by taking some time for themselves. A guilt-ridden caregiver who finally does decide to take some time away may find themselves so consumed by remorse that it’s impossible to enjoy it.

How Family Caregivers Can Prioritize Self-Care

It’s normal for caregivers to experience the thought patterns described above. However, when these thoughts begin to get in the way of your own self-care, it’s time for an attitude adjustment. Laverty offers some tips to help caregivers cope with feelings of guilt and anxiety and break out of this mental rut.

  1. Make the decision that your life matters.
    Because they are so consumed by caring for their loved ones, caregivers are notoriously negligent when it comes to taking care of themselves. According to Laverty, the only way to get rid of the obsessive on-call mentality is to decide that your health and happiness matter just as much as that of your loved one. It won’t be easy but deciding that you deserve to have peace and happiness is the first step towards being able to make the most of your time away from your loved one. “No one is going to do caregiving the way the primary caregiver does,” Laverty admits. “But, that’s okay as long as your care recipient is still getting the care and supervision they require.”
  2. Ask for help more than once.
    A common caregiver complaint is the inability to find hands-on help. When caregivers tell Laverty that their family/friends refuse to pitch in, she responds with a single question: “When was the last time you asked them to?” It’s true that people may not be willing or able to step up and shoulder a significant portion of the caregiving burden, but Laverty says that an important part of asking for help is accepting how your friends and family show up. For example, your sister may not be able to help you with the day-to-day care of your mother, but she might be able to cook a week’s worth of meals for you both. This is how she is capable of showing up for you and your mother. If you demonstrate your appreciation for the assistance that others give, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it might make them more likely to seek other ways to help you in the future.
  3. Use respite time to “disappear.”
    Barring an emergency, respite care should involve completely removing yourself from the caregiving situation. Laverty attributes the trickiness of this endeavor to the fact that a caregiver’s mind is constantly in fix-it mode. When you’re taking care of an elderly loved one, you’re always tuned in, trying to anticipate and meet their needs. It can be hard to simply shut off this compulsion. But the truth is that this mindset isn’t necessarily healthy, even though it seems like the right approach. Rather than trying to “fix” a loved one, focus on helping make them happier, healthier and more comfortable. Perfection isn’t a realistic goal. In the end, you’ll just wear yourself out. “When you stop trying to fix everything, it gets so much easier to feel productive when you’re caregiving and to disconnect during opportunities for respite,” says Laverty.
  4. When you have the time, do something you enjoy.
    The key to successful relaxation, according to Laverty, is doing things that bring joy back into your life. This will mean different things for different people. For some it might be taking a hike with a good friend. For others, it could be getting a manicure or a massage. “When you’re engaging in joyful activities for yourself, it’s hard to stay mired in the what-ifs,” Laverty explains.

Learning how to let go and unwind is a difficult process for most caregivers. Laverty cautions that being alone with your thoughts may not be a pleasant experience at first. Scary emotions are likely to arise, but they must come to the surface for you to process them before you can find peace. She suggests therapy, journaling and meditation as a few ways to help cope with these difficult feelings.

Ultimately, true relaxation is about discovering how to connect with (and love) yourself—flaws and all. “Caregivers need to learn how to be easier on themselves. You don’t have to be perfect,” Laverty encourages.

If you find that your caregiver guilt is provoked by this notion, Laverty recommends quelling it by asking yourself this question: Why are you more focused on caregiving than you are on attaining joy, peace and serenity?