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16 ways in 16 days to becoming a happier (and healthier) carer

A disabled senior man and a happy male nurse, grandson, having coffee at the Cafe Trieste in the city centre, Slovenia, Europe. The young man is passing his grandfather a glass of water. Nikon D800, full frame, XXXL.

Common sense advice to help carers tackle the everyday challenges of looking after a loved one.

The role of caring for a partner, family member or friend can be an exhausting one – emotionally and physically. Feeling overwhelmed, and burning out can open the way for destructive behaviours to surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and abuse of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs, are top of the list when it comes to the negative impacts of carer stress.

According to a 2014 survey by Carers NSW, one in three carers themselves have a long-term illness or disability and experience lower wellbeing than the general population.

Whether you are caring for a son or daughter, a spouse or partner, or a parent – caring can have a significant impact in your life, health and temperament.

Many carers report they have had to stop working, and one in four who continue to work say they don’t feel their carer role is supported in their workplace.

With reports like these, you would be wrong to think that becoming the primary carer for someone is a role you would not want to take on.

Overwhelmingly and consistently, carers also say that it can also be a positive and rewarding experience, often outweighing all the negative impacts. Many carers are able find a strength and resilience they never knew they had and are proud to be able to provide a better quality of life for their loved one.

To help you along the pathway to achieving a happier and healthier life as a carer, here are 16 simple and concrete actions you can implement – one day at a time! – to becoming a healthier, happier carer.

Day 1: Find something to laugh about

Laughter is said to be the best medicine for the mind and body. Humour is infectious. When laughter is shared it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. Laughter triggers physical changes in your body: it strengthens your immune system, boosts your energy, reduces pain, and can protect you from the damaging effects of stress.

Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which protects year heart. Laughter makes you feel good – it triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Laughter relaxes the whole body and a good, hearty laugh can immediately relieve physical tension and stress.

Best of all, laughter is free, fun and everyone can do it.

Here are some ideas for creating opportunities to laugh:

  • Watch a funny movie or TV show
  • Read the funny pages
  • Seek out funny people
  • Share a good joke or a funny story about yourself with a friend
  • Check out the humour section in your library or bookstore.
  • Host game night with friends
  • Play with a pet
  • Goof around with children
  • Do something silly
  • Make time for fun activities (e.g. bowling, miniature golfing, karaoke)
  • Practice smiling even if you don’t feel like it, it will make you feel better

Day 2: Get out of the house and into nature

The idea that spending time in nature can make you feel better is intuitive. We all feel this to be true, and many of us have anecdotes of our own or from friends or family that support that idea. People who have been suffering from stress, sickness, or a trauma can spend quiet contemplative time in gardens or taken to the mountains or woods to heal. But nature is not just wilderness. The benefits of nature can also be found in our communities’ parks and green spaces.

Researchers say as little as five minutes in a natural setting will improve our mood, self-esteem and motivation. Nature is good for us and has both long and short term mental and physical health benefits.

Here are ways you can experience nature’s healing touch:

  • Gardening, weeding, sweeping up leaves – it’s an ideal distraction
  • Walk through a park or along a tree lined street.
  • Hang pictures of nature on your walls.
  • Walk in the rain. Step out into the sunshine. Let the wind mess up your hair.
  • Do a tour of your neighbours’ gardens.

Day 3: Eat a well-balanced diet

As a family carer, it is not uncommon to get so busy that you forget to eat. Other times, you may find that it is easiest to grab a snack or fast food on the run. While these things are okay once in a while, you should try not to make a habit out of them. Your body needs nutritious meals to use as fuel to keep you going.

Eat three well-balanced meals per day, including breads and cereals, milk and cheese, fruits and vegetables, and lean meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Cut down on fatty foods, sugar, and alcoholic beverages. Eat healthy snacks in between meals (e.g. fruit, vegetables, low-fat cheese, yogurt, cereals, and crackers). Drink enough water (6-8 glasses per day). Avoid drinking too much caffeine, such as soda, coffee, and tea.

Day 4: Talk with someone every day

Talking is important for everyone. It stops your problems from getting on top of you.

Some people are good at talking, and do it a lot. Some people don’t like to talk too much but it can be helpful for everyone. It’s worth making an effort to talk through what’s going on for you with someone you trust. Good things that can come from talking:

  • It’ll help you sort through your thoughts and clarify whatever is going on for you at the time. While all your stuff is internal, it’s hard to see how it really works. Once you’ve had to say it out loud, it gets easier to get hold of.
  • If you just worry about your problems without talking to someone about them, they probably start to seem worse and bigger than they are. Talking will cut them down to size.
  • Someone who’s not involved in whatever’s bothering you might suggest options you haven’t thought of.
  • If you’re talking to someone neutral, but caring, they won’t take sides or push an agenda.
  • Talking is like a pressure valve for your head. Switch it on once in a while.

You’re going to want to pick someone you trust to talk about things that are bothering you. It might be a friend, family member, teacher, doctor or other person you see often. You may also want to consider talking to a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. They can help you get the skills and help of someone who’s trained to be a good person to talk to, so it’s worth considering too.

Day 5: Give yourself permission to cry

It’s important to be able to express your pain and not feel as though you have to put on a brave front for others. Giving yourself permission to feel sad and to cry is a necessary part of coping and releasing the build-up of tension and emotion. Releasing tears can help you re-locate your strength and find the ‘grit’ you need to pick yourself up and keep going.

Caring for someone can be a roller coaster ride, because there are good days and bad days. Each event in life is natural – so when things are bad, and there’s a day when everything is going all wrong, embrace it all. Every day will come with its own challenges. When you are frustrated, give yourself permission to cry. Crying is therapeutic so allow yourself this relief. You’ll feel much better after you do.

Day 6: Start an exercise regimen

Exercise has many benefits, including lowering blood pressure, easing depression and anxiety, and decreasing physical and mental tension. Exercise can help you ease your mind, take a break from the patient, and stay in shape to foster good health. As a carer, you confront a great deal of physical and emotional stress that can build up if not properly addressed. Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed.

As your doctor to determine an exercise regimen that will be right for you. Walking and swimming are two great forms of low-impact exercise.

No amount of exercise is too little, but it is suggested that you work out at least three times per week for at least 20 minutes each time.

Before doing anything vigorous, be sure to stretch your muscles before and after you work out.

If possible, try to work out with someone else who can help keep you motivated and pick a form of exercise that is convenient and you will enjoy, you will be more likely to stick with it.

Day 7: Get adequate rest

Do you wake up numerous times in the middle of the night to care for a loved one, or do you get up early and go to bed late in order to get everything done? These situations can cause serious disruptions to your sleep and can quickly lead to exhaustion. Sleep restores your body and mind. So, it is important for you to get enough rest in order to be able to maintain proper physical and emotional functioning. Ideally, you should be getting at least 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

So, try to schedule your sleep around your loved one’s sleeping pattern (e.g. if he/she sleeps during the day, take a nap at the same time). Rest when you get tired. Get outside help for the evenings if you are unable to sleep because the patient is up a lot during the night – recruit a friend or family member to stay over or hire a care worker.

By improving your sleep habits, you can increase your chance of falling asleep fast, staying asleep and sleeping between seven to nine hours each night. A good night’s sleep has many health benefits. Most importantly, you will feel great.

  • The bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex. That means no reading in bed and no TV in bed. Doing these things (or anything else) confuses your body, making it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Keep a regular schedule – Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This will train your body to sleep on a schedule.
  • Create a nightly ritual to signal to your body that it is time to sleep. Start the ritual about 30 minutes before you lie down to help release stressful thoughts and be ready to sleep when you lie down. A little quiet reading, or a warm bath or drink, can do the trick.

Day 8: Know your limits

Be realistic with yourself about what you can do and what feels acceptable and what is comfortable for you. Guilt has a way of playing against a carers ability to maintain boundaries. Virtually every other job offers a limited workday (say, 8 to 12 hours), holidays off, and a couple of weeks’ vacation every year. Carers need the same.

As surely as good fences make for good neighbours, personal boundaries make for better relations between a carer and the one they are caring for.

But how do you justify saying no to a loved one who simply wants to talk? Or only needs one more errand run? And what about a sibling who needs you to cover for them just this once? Or twice? Or fifth time?

As a carer, it’s important for you to set personal boundaries that will allow you to maintain both a sense of control and contentment with your own life.

When trying to set boundaries for yourself, consider the following:

  • Assess what is needed – understanding what your loved one truly needs versus what would be nice for them, is an important first step in setting realistic boundaries
  • Examine your motivations – in our society we’re taught that being generous with your time and resources is virtuous. As a result, people have a tendency to overextend themselves because they think it’s the right thing to do and because of how it makes them appear.
  • Identify your resources – identify and enlist the support you need – Fact 1: You can’t do this alone. Fact 2: You really, really can’t do this alone. Don’t wait until you become too overwhelmed to do anything about your situation.
  • Realism – assuming you’ve honestly assessed your loved one’s needs, you’ve already taken an important first step towards it. The next step is to realistically match those needs with the abilities of those in your network.
  • Commitment – this about being committed to caring for yourself and being willing to recognise that your time, your energy, your health, and your relationships are as deserving of a commitment of caring as your loved one is.
  • Saying “No” – don’t let others guilt you into taking on more responsibilities or especially their own responsibilities.

Day 9: Develop positive thinking

You have probably had someone tell you to “look on the bright side” or to “see the cup as half full.” Chances are good that the people who make these comments are positive thinkers. Researchers are finding more and more evidence pointing to the many benefits of optimism and positive thinking.

Such findings suggest that not only are positive thinkers healthier and less stressed, they also have greater overall well-being.

Setbacks are inherent to almost every worthwhile human activity, but a number of studies show that optimists are in general both psychologically and physiologically healthier.

Even if positive thinking does not come naturally to you, there are plenty of great reasons to start cultivating affirmative thoughts and minimizing negative self-talk:

  • Positive thinkers cope better with stressful situations – researchers found that when optimists encounter a disappointment they are more likely to focus on things they can do to resolve the situation. Rather than dwelling on their frustrations or things that they cannot change, they will devise a plan of action and ask others for assistance and advice. Pessimists, on the other hand, simply assume that the situation is out of their control and there is nothing they can do to change it.
  • Optimism can improve your immunity – in recent years, researchers have found that your mind can have a powerful effect on your body. Your immune system is one area where your thoughts and attitudes can have a particularly powerful influence.
  • Positive thinking is good for your health – research has found that optimism reduces the risk of death from cardiovascular problems, less depression and an increased lifespan. While researchers are not entirely clear on why positive thinking benefits health, some suggest that positive people might lead healthier lifestyles.
  • It can make you more resilient – resilience refers to our ability to cope with problems. Resilient people are able to face a crisis or trauma with strength and resolve. Rather than falling apart in the face of such stress, they have the ability to carry on and eventually overcome such adversity. It may come as no surprise to learn that positive thinking can play a major role in resilience. When dealing with a challenge, optimists typically look at what they can do to fix the problem. Instead of giving up hope, they marshal their resources and are willing to ask others for help.

Before you put on those rose-coloured glasses, it is important to note that positive thinking is not about taking a “Pollyanna” approach to life. It centres on such things as a belief in your abilities, a positive approach to challenges, and trying to make the most of bad situations. Bad things will happen, it’s inevitable and sometimes you will be disappointed or hurt by the actions of others. This does not mean that the world is out to get you or that all people will let you down. Instead, positive thinkers will look at the situation realistically, search for ways that they can improve the situation, and try to learn from their experiences.

Day 10: Learn relaxation techniques

Relaxation can help to relieve the symptoms of stress. It can help you calm down and take a step back from a stressful situation.

Although the cause of the anxiety won’t disappear, you will probably feel more able to deal with it once you’ve released the tension in your body and cleared your thoughts.

As little as 10 minutes of relaxation per day can help you feel more calm, rested, and able to cope with the stresses in your life.

All relaxation techniques combine breathing more deeply with relaxing the muscles.

Don’t worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and it will come with practice.

Yoga and tai chi are both good forms of exercise that can help to improve breathing and relaxation.

Learning how to relax is a skill that takes time and practice. Do it as often as you can until you feel comfortable with the technique. Take time out at least once per day to relax, do something you enjoy, and get your mind off the illness. Do relaxation exercises in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Practice relaxation at times when your loved one is asleep or does not need you. Take the phone off the hook and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.

Reading a book, watching TV or listening to music can also serve as a relaxing break from the demands of caring. Schedule some time to pamper yourself by getting a massage, facial, or something else you enjoy.

Day 11: Join support groups and educational workshops

There are many online support groups with people are from all over the world who have similar interests or problems to you. You can meet them online, through email lists, websites, message boards, or social media.

You can get support without leaving your house, which is good for people with limited mobility or transportation problems.

You can access the group whenever it’s convenient for you or when you need help most.

If your problem is very unusual—a rare disease, for example—there may not be enough people for a local group, but there will always be enough people online.

There are also plenty of offline Carer Support Group’s to join. The benefits of being in a group such as this is:

  • Being with people who understand the impacts of caring – Probably, many of your friends, family and health professionals you encounter do not really understand what it is like being a carer. By talking to other carers, you will find that you are not the only one feeling the way you do, and this can be quite a relief.
  • Getting emotional support – Carers often experience emotions such as sadness, depression, guilt, exhaustion, frustration, anger, irritability. Sometimes carers feel they should not express such emotions because they are not ‘acceptable’ and they should be ‘coping better’. Almost every carer feels these emotions at some time. This is a perfectly normal reaction to the situation you are in. Carer Support Groups offer you the opportunity to talk about these emotions.
  • Making new friends – Often carers lose touch with friends and family because of changed circumstances and increased demands on their time. This can lead to isolation and feelings of loneliness and perhaps depression. Getting out to a support group can expand your social network and help reduce social isolation, improving your overall sense of wellbeing.
  • Getting Information – Support group coordinators keep members up-to-date with developments in policies, entitlements and special carers’ events. They may also arrange guest speakers on topics of interest.

To find groups in your area contact the Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centre on freecall 1800 052 222 – or the Carers Hotline on freecall 1800 242 636.

Day 12: Ask for and accept help from family and friends

Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be up front about what’s going on with you and the person you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them—even if you’re unsure how they’ll be received, get a dialogue going.

Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up care tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example.

Be willing to relinquish some control. Delegating is one thing. Trying to control every aspect of care is another. People will be less likely to help if you micromanage, give orders, or insist on doing things your way.

Write a list of people who you think may be able to help you. Now commit to contacting them.

Prepare a schedule, or list of tasks that need to be done. When you ask for help, be specific about when, how and where you need them to help.

Day 13: Practice gratitude

This is a seemingly simple strategy, but it can make a huge difference to your outlook. There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show gratitude when others help you.

In a stuck moment, it’s hard to see positive forces when obstacles are blaring and fears are looming. This is a good time to be grateful. Not grateful for what has us stuck, but appreciating what doesn’t. Gratitude helps us see our situation in a way that can lessen panic, and could open up our thinking to new solutions.

Thing is, people aren’t hardwired to be grateful. And, like any skill worth having, gratitude requires practice. There are three stages, says Dr. Robert Emmons, author of “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier”: recognizing what we’re grateful for, acknowledging it, and appreciating it. Simple, right? And the benefits of practicing gratitude can be life-altering.

Gratitude puts situations into perspective. When we can see the good as well as the bad, it becomes more difficult to complain and stay stuck. Gratitude helps us realize what we have. This can lessen our need for wanting more all the time. Gratitude strengthens relationships, improves health, reduces stress, and, in general, makes us happier, according to Dr. Emmons, who explains his research in this video.

Day 14: Find respite care

Respite is a break; some time away, a rest from your normal caring responsibilities. Sadly, respite is the best kept secret of healthy family caregivers. So, take off the superhero cape and let us break it down simply. There are two kinds of family carers when it comes to respite:

  1. The kind that knowingly have access to some form of respite but due to some crazy carer phenomenon, won’t use it; instead, they make up excuses as to why they can’t use it
  2. The kind that don’t realize that there is respite available or don’t know where to find it.

No matter what category you fall into, the bottom line is that, almost always, there is someone out there that can help you with your caregiving responsibilities when you need a break. Start with:

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Neighbours

If pride, guilt, or some other hang-up prevents you or someone you know from tapping the above list for help, our simple advice is: get over it. The same holds true for care recipients who are reluctant to spend time with others. The fact is that family, friends, and neighbours are the very people most likely to WANT to help. Plan to take regular respites, even if it means feeling awkward or just throwing your pride out the window. Do it for your health, quality of life, and ability to provide safe, effective, and sustainable care.

There are also government funded services available:

For aged care respite, you can access the Commonwealth Home Support Program:

  • In-home respite
  • Centre-based day care respite
  • Overnight or weekend respite
  • Community access respite
  • Residential respite care (short stays in aged care homes)

To access any of these services, you will need to ring My Aged Care contact centre on 1800 200 422, they can refer you to a service provider.

For disability respite, you will need to contact your state government’s disability service (or similar). They can refer you to a respite service in your area.

Or you can pay a care worker – hiring a care worker via Mable is affordable with costs from only $25 per hour. Get in touch with Mable on 1300 73 65 73 or Find out more >>

Day 15: Keep a diary

It can be very useful to keep a weekly or monthly diary to record how you cope with caring, the tasks that you do and anything that you find particularly difficult. This can be a helpful preparation for when you visit the doctor or another health or social care professional, or for a carer’s assessment, when applying for financial benefits and so on.

The contents depend very much on your own individual situation. You should be as honest as possible and include anything you feel is relevant to you, especially anything you find difficult that you would like help with. This will be valuable to the doctor or other professional that you may wish to share your thoughts with.

Other purposes for a diary are to share information between several family members or friends who are also filling the caregiver role for your loved one. You could keep a diary in the home of observations, doctor’s appointments, changes in medications and daily routines.

A list of medications and care information is necessary for other family members. If they only provide the occasional respite care, it is difficult to remember all that they need to know about your loved one and his/her needs.

For example, keep notes of:

  • Regular daily routines: watching TV, reading newspapers or books together or playing games.
  • Medical and/or therapy routines
  • Dietary preferences or requirements
  • Track changes in the intensity of pain or discomfort
  • Note any change in the ability to communicate or remember
  • List the names and contact information for Doctors, Therapists, church visitors, neighbours or others involved in caregiving
  • Keep track of finances: what are the charges for medications, transportation, home care?

Summarise at the end of each day: what did we talk about, what did we do, what was good and what was maybe not so good today?

If your loved one is living in a long-term care facility, it is just as important to keep a diary of your observations; your contact with staff, any changes in routines or medications, and any other changes you notice. Talk with the staff on a regular basis and make notes.

Keep your diaries: they are a roadmap to what your loved one and you have experienced. You may find that sharing them with someone else in a similar situation helps you both.

Day 16: Learn the practice of mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focusing your mind on the present moment, rather than being preoccupied with thinking of the future or the past.

Mindfulness can help you feel better and reduce stress. Researchers studying mindfulness and related techniques say this type of relaxation can help treat various physical and mental health conditions.

Mindfulness is paying full attention to what is going on in you and outside you, moment by moment, and without judging. It means you observe your thoughts, feelings, and the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. You are also fully aware of your surroundings.

Many individuals and organisations now offer mindfulness training. However, you can start putting mindfulness into practice with these few simple exercises:

  • One-minute breathing exercise:

Sit with your back straight but relaxed. For the next minute, focus your entire attention on your breathing in and out, how air passes in and out of your nostrils, and how your abdomen rises and goes down with each breath. If thoughts start crowding in, gently let them go and refocus on your breathing.

  • Check in with yourself:

Bring yourself into the present moment by asking yourself, ‘What is going on with me at the moment?’ You can label your thoughts and feelings, for example, ‘that’s an anxious feeling’, and let them go. You may start to feel more of an observer instead of someone reacting to thoughts and feelings

  • Eat mindfully

When you’re having a meal, focus on your eating. Don’t read or watch TV at the same time. Pay attention to how the food looks, smells and tastes. You may find you enjoy your food more, and stop eating when you’re full instead of automatically finishing what’s on your plate.

Well, that concludes 16 ways in 16 days to becoming a happier (and healthier) care worker.

If you have further suggestions, please post them in the comment section below. I would love to share them with others.

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