Stress is a normal part of life for most people, but for those who’ve taken on the responsibility of taking care of an elderly loved one, the strain can quickly take its toll.

In fact, research consistently shows how the emotional and physical burden of caregiving, along with the uncertainty it brings, means caregivers are far likelier to develop chronic stress than non-caregivers.

Constant caregiver stress can beget a range of related conditions, from high blood pressure and heart disease to depression. Plus, prioritizing your own needs can be hard to do when you’re focused on your loved one’s well-being.

However, letting your health take a backseat for too long is practically a guarantee that you’ll get burned out and find yourself unable to manage your own life, let alone provide care for anyone else.

What follows are six key strategies to cope with the stresses of caregiving and stay healthy.

Connect with Your Loved One’s Doctor

Both doctors and family caregivers are especially time-strapped, but making the effort to form a relationship with your loved one’s primary doctor can be a huge help. Studies show that when family caregivers have clear information about their loved one’s disease trajectory, they’re better able to help manage their loved one’s symptoms and as a result, report feeling less anxiety, depression and fatigue.

Lean on Others to Reduce Caregiver Stress

An important reminder to hardworking family caregivers: You can’t do it all alone. Trying to do so will only lead to burnout, leaving both you and the person you’re caring for worse off. Even if you’re the primary caregiver for your loved one, there will be times when you’ll need to attend to other obligations, or just take some much needed me-time.

Ask siblings, your spouse, close friends, neighbors or others you trust to care for your loved one in your absence. Even if siblings and other loved ones can’t provide care in person, they may be able to contribute in other ways, like providing meals or funds to help pay for senior care. Having that circle of support in place is an important foundation that will help you cope with the emotional strain of caregiving.

Take Regular Breaks

Just as you can’t do everything by yourself without facing near-certain burnout, taking regular breaks from caregiving is a must. For those times when none of your relatives are available to help out, finding respite care should allow you to take a break with the knowledge that your loved one is in good hands. Reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging or senior center to find out about services such as senior meal delivery or adult day care.

If your loved one needs to stay home, consider hiring an in-home caregiver who can assist with things like preparing meals, light housework and medication reminders. It can be tough to accept outside help – you may be wary of bringing a stranger into the home, or you may worry that no one will be able to care for your loved one the way you do.

As understandable as these feelings are, taking regular breaks to pursue your own interests or simply do nothing is one of the most fundamental things you can do for yourself.

Let Your Employer Know

If you’re trying to juggle caregiving with a paid job, you’re not alone. One in six working Americans reports providing some care for an elderly or disabled loved one, according to a 2015 report. And a third of those workers don’t disclose their caregiver role to their employer, the report noted.

Since it’s so statistically unlikely that you’re the only family caregiver at your company, your employer has probably dealt with the issue before – and if not, it’s time they start! These days, a growing number of workplaces are offering resources to caregiving employees, like referrals to elder care resources and more flexible work schedules. Having your employer in the loop can lower some of the stress of balancing caregiving and career.

Get Moving to Reduce Caregiver Stress

You’ve heard it over and over again because it’s true. Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Of course, as a caregiver, you have little time to spare, but even working short bursts of moderate exercise into your routine – think 10-minute walks or at-home yoga sessions – can add up to less stress.

Regular exercise can also help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease, all of which not only affect your own health, but also your ability to care for your aging loved one.

Find a Place to Vent

Many caregivers find joining a caregiver support group, whether in-person or online, to be enormously helpful. These groups offer safe spaces to vent your frustrations and concerns, or commiserate over caregiving dilemmas with others who understand what you’re going through. They can also give you a chance to swap advice and information, or just find someone to listen, about the caregiving-related situations you’re facing.

If you’re like a lot of family caregivers, you probably spend so much time worrying about others that you neglect your own needs. Take a moment to ask yourself – “What am I not getting enough of?”

The answers should help guide you toward the areas you’ve been skimping on, whether it’s sleep, healthy food, exercise, time spent with other loved ones and friends or your favorite hobbies. As hard as it can be to find time for yourself, doing so is essential to avoid burnout and ensure you’re able to provide the best possible care for your aging loved one.

If you are a caregiver, what are you doing to combat caregiver stress and burnout? How do you find time for yourself? How have you leaned on others for support? Which resources have you found most helpful? Please share with the Sixty and Me community.

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