Family caregivers tend to be so concerned with the well-being of their loved ones that they often ignore their own needs.  Caregivers who fail to take time for self-care are subject to stress-related illness and other problems that can undermine the task to which they are so lovingly devoted.

In one out of every three U.S. households, at least one member is a caregiver, looking after someone with a disability or disease.

There are 44 million family caregivers in the United States, yet many do not think of themselves as caregivers; they feel as though they are doing something natural. But if you are making meals for loved ones, picking up their medications, going with them on doctor's visits, or simply providing companionship, you are performing the functions of a caregiver.

Identifying yourself as a caregiver is an important first step for tuning into your own physical and mental health and avoiding some of the pitfalls common among family caregivers.

Most caregivers feel stressed at times. They often face the demands of care-giving coupled with worry and grief over the loved one they are caring for.

 They might have feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, hopelessness and guilt. These feelings do not mean that they do not love their family member; they simply mean they are human.

The most important thing is to acknowledge these feelings and know they are normal.  Sharing these feelings with a family member, friend, spiritual leader or personal physician can help prevent them from becoming overwhelming. Joining a caregiver support group is a wonderful way to express these feelings with understanding peers and learn about new ideas for coping.

Many caregivers suffer from what I call a doctrine of self-reliance. They feel as though they are supposed to be strong enough to handle whatever comes their way. But caregivers should not be too proud, shy or afraid to ask for help.

One of the biggest mistakes they make is trying to do too much on their own. Seeking to access community resources or delegating some daily tasks to others provides caregivers with much needed breaks and makes them realize they are not alone in their struggle.

Caregivers are not being selfish by taking time for self-care. Instead, they are trying to sustain the energy, temperament and compassion it takes to be good caregivers. Here are some coping strategies caregivers should consider:

  • Take time for a hobby, leisure or anything you enjoy, even if it is only for a few minutes.
  • Stay active with exercise, yard work, gardening and other pursuits. It can offer a welcomed distraction and ease stress.
  • Socialize with friends and family members. If you can't get out of the house, e-mail, social networking and the telephone are wonderful ways to stay connected with others.
  • Take care of your health with regular checkups, healthful eating, exercise and rest. Because they often ignore their own needs, family caregivers are less likely than non-caregivers to practice preventive health and self-care behavior.

Caregivers are wonderful and generous people, but they can't expect to take care of others if they don't look after themselves.

By: Rev. Gunnar A. Cerda, MDiv, the manager of pastoral care at OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital and Westerville Emergency Care Center