Family caregivers are constantly being told they need to arrange respite care and make time for themselves. While finding spare time in a busy caregiving schedule is certainly a feat, being able to actually relax during these breaks can be an even bigger challenge.

When we get the opportunity, why is it so hard for us to switch off “caregiver mode” and focus on our own needs?

Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host and author of Caregiving: Eldercare Made Clear & Simple, experienced this dilemma first-hand when she became the primary caregiver for her ex-husband’s father and mother. Laverty recalls being so consumed with needing to take care of everything for her in-laws that she neglected to prioritize her own needs at the beginning 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 Is It Hard to Relax As a Family Caregiver?

Laverty says there are certain thoughts that may prevent a caregiver from truly disconnecting from their responsibilities and recharging. See if any of the following 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.”

    It’s often difficult to let go of the primary caregiver mindset—even when your mind and body are screaming for 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 straight, 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? Caregiver anxiety can trigger these kinds of thoughts and render a person incapable of relaxing—even when they’re away from their loved one.
  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. Caregiver guilt can make you feel as though you’re being inconsiderate and selfish by taking time for yourself. A guilt-ridden caregiver who finally does decide to take a much-needed break may find themselves so consumed by remorse that it’s impossible to enjoy it.

How to Break Out of Caregiver Mode

It’s normal for family 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 the tips below 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?”
    Many family caregivers have a difficult time directly asking for assistance and some even refuse help. It’s true that some 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 Mom’s day-to-day care, but she might be able to cook a week’s worth of meals for you both. This is how she is capable of participating in your mother’s care. 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 of helping 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,” assures 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.

Re-learning to relax and enjoy life outside of daily routines and care decisions 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 for coping 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’re still uncomfortable with this notion, Laverty recommends asking yourself this question: Why are you more focused on caregiving than you are on attaining joy, peace and serenity?