Caring for Yourself While Caring for Another

Three unhelpful habits to watch out for when you’re taking care of a loved one, and three ways to overcome them with mindfulness.

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Lisa, whom I had just met at a conference, tearfully described to me her agony as sole caregiver for her disabled husband for 33 years. As I listened, her pain made me think of the burden that 34 million Americans caring for loved ones with dementia, disabilities, and other enduring illnesses carry. Most caregivers report significant stress, and that’s certainly consistent with my experience over the last seven years serving as the chief caregiver for my wife, Susan, who has Alzheimer’s.

The stress of caregiving is hard to bear. It leaves many of us heartbroken, overwhelmed, disoriented, and feeling inadequate. Even more sobering is the fact that this intense stress can spiral downward into burnout, marked by utter exhaustion, social isolation, despair—even hypertension, heart attacks, and death. 

Our biggest threat isn’t the constant stress, but rather the burnout we can inadvertently manufacture ourselves.

“Jerry, if you don’t care for yourself,” my wife’s physician warned me, “you’ll likely die before Susan.”  

Caregivers seek ways to stay alive, and self-care is the usual recommendation. But all too often our first impulse is to control our painful feelings, which can sidetrack self-care and make a hard job…