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Health & Fitness for Caregivers

Taking Time To Care For Yourself When You Are Caring For Others

If you are a woman, at some point in your life, you will be a caregiver. Care giving happens throughout life, both in expected and unexpected places.

Most of us think of ourselves as a caregiver in two distinct ways: first as a mother raising children, and later nursing a parent or another elderly relative. Yet there are countless other situations that call on us to leap back into the role of caregiver – the husband who acts helpless in the kitchen, the dog that needs to be walked and fed each day, the boss who can neither make a pot of coffee nor fix paper jams in the copy machine.

At the end of the day, we crawl into bed, exhausted from all the work we did taking care of others or overcome by the guilt of not doing enough.

The Role of Caregiver

"The average American woman spends 17 years caring for a dependent child and 18 years caring for a parent," says Stella Henry, an RN who has worked in long-term care facilities for 37 years and cared for both of her parents as they suffered with Alzheimer's disease during their final years. "Plus, baby boomer women tend to be perfectionists," she says. Simple care giving is not enough. Instead, nothing but the best will do.

Of course, there are many men who pick up the role of caregiver, but the reality is, the bulk of care falls on the shoulder of women.

"Women are hard-wired for empathy and everything has connections, while men tend to compartmentalize things," says Debbie Mandel, author of Changing Habits: The Caregiver's Total Workout (Catholic Book Publishing, 2005). Women become caregivers largely because they are physiologically built for the job.

Staying Physically Fit

However, women who are caught up in their role as caregiver too often forget to take care of themselves. A woman professor in a male-dominated field spends so much time mentoring her female students that she forgets to eat lunch or grabs a bag of chips from the vending machine. The woman stuck in a sandwich generation gets her exercise dashing from work to ball practice to her elderly father's house.

Consequently, women who run themselves ragged risk physical and mental illness. Exercise is often the first thing to get scratched from her busy schedule, which is a mistake. According to the book eDiets Weight Loss Solutions and Daily Progress Journal (Time Inc. Home Entertainment, 2006), "...an exercise regimen can lessen depression and reduce stress, anxiety, tension and anger. Working out can assist you in working out your life's problems." If getting to the gym or taking a run through the neighborhood seems impossible, women can combine their caregiving chores with spurts of exercise. Mary Moslander, president and CEO of LiveHealthier.com, suggests the following:

  • Waiting Wall Pushups: You've got time on your hands while you wait for the children to finish their activities, so why not try to fit in something for yourself. Find the closest wall, and place both hands at shoulder height, stepping back from the wall (the farther back your feet are, the more challenging this will be). Turn your head to the right and begin to lower your body toward the wall. Use your chest and arms to push away from the wall back to starting position.
  • Traffic Tushies: Stoplights and traffic are a fact of life. Make the most of your time by squeezing your glutes when you are stopped in traffic or at a stoplight. See if you can hold it until the light turns green or the traffic starts to move.
  • Laundry Lunges: Load the washer one item at a time and do a leg lunge in between each item. Stand facing the washer with both feet together; put one piece of laundry into the washer and take a big step back with your right leg. Keeping your left knee at a 90-degree angle so that your left knee does not come over your toes, lower body straight down into a lunge position with right knee pointing to the ground. Make sure your shoulders are retracted back and avoid leaning forward as you lunge. Press through the left heel to bring yourself back up to starting position. Put another piece of laundry in the washer and repeat with the other leg.

Staying Emotionally Fit

Once exercise and physical care is fit into the schedule, the care-giving woman must then concentrate on her emotional and mental well-being. The first thing she must do is admit that she can't do everything.

Shelly Sun of Chicago owns her own business, BrightStar Healthcare, which provides assistance for family caregivers. However, she found herself in need of the services she offers to her clients. Sun gave birth to premature twins, and caring for the babies while running her company, she soon discovered that she was wearing down. She realized she couldn't do it alone.

"It was a humbling thing to ask for help, but it was overwhelming to see how people were willing to help," says Sun.

Asking for help is one way women can keep their sanity while care giving. Here are some other ways, according to New York State Association of Health Care Providers Long Island Chapter:

  • Take time to nurture your closest relationships, as these can restore energy and alleviate some of the psychological effects of burnout such as feelings of being underappreciated.
  • Take time to laugh. Find humor in everyday situations for laughter is surely the best medicine. Plus there's no copay! Share a smile every day with your loved ones.
  • Make time to read. Go to your public library or local bookstore and get a book that will transport you to another time and place.

Most important, women should remember to go to their own doctor's appointments and to follow the healthy eating habits they try to instill in their children.

And if you need to take a day to yourself, do it! The world won't stop spinning, and maybe your boss will figure out how to use that coffee machine.

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