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Five Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Health While Caring for an Aging Loved One

Last updated on: Friday, 5 May 2023
  • What You'll Learn

Caregiver stress and burnout is a real thing because the demands of caregiving can be exhausting and overwhelming. However, you can take steps to rein in stress and regain a sense of balance and hope in your life to maintain your mental health. Overall, caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, but there are many stressors because caregiving is a long-term challenge. Unfortunately, the emotional impact can snowball over time because you are dealing with caregiving responsibilities for years or even decades.

Additionally, many caregivers feel they are in over their heads, and there is no hope that their family members will get better, despite their best efforts. Individual mental health is important, and everyone has their own way of staying balanced. If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it takes a toll on your health, job, relationships, and your overall state of mind. The stress leads to burning out emotionally, mentally, and physically. Maintaining your own emotional and physical well-being is just as important as your family member living a happy life. Here are five important tips for maintaining your mental health while caring for an aging loved one.

Tip One—Know the Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout and Stress

Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout is important. Like anything else, if you are informed, you can take immediate action to prevent things from becoming worse. It is essential to begin improving the situation for your sake and the sake of the person you are caring for. Some of the common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress are anxiety, depression, irritability, feeling tired and run down, difficulty sleeping and overreacting. It is also not uncommon to experience new or worsening health problems along with trouble concentrating, feeling resentful, drinking, smoking, or eating more, neglecting responsibilities, and cutting back on your leisure activities.

Feeling and being stressed out also leads to burnout and struggling to care for your loved one. Some of the common signs of caregiver burnout are having less energy than you once had, feeling like you are always sick, and feeling constantly exhausted even after sleeping or taking a break. Further to this, you begin to neglect your own needs, and your life revolves around caregiving but gives you little satisfaction. Someone experiencing burnout also has trouble sleeping, relaxing, and becomes increasingly impatient or irritable, along with feeling helpless and hopeless.

Caring for a loved one is never going to be completely stress-free but coping and managing the stress is an important tool. How you perceive and respond to an event is a significant factor in how you adjust and cope with it. Generally, the stress you are feeling is not only the result of your caregiving situation but also the result of your perception of it. Many factors can influence the stress:

  • Whether your caregiving is voluntary or forced upon you. 
  • Your relationship with the care recipient can add or decrease your level of stress. 
  • Whether your coping abilities are good or need work. 
  • Your overall caregiving situation, such as increased medical needs, for example. 
  • Whether or not you have support, friends, family, and or healthcare workers to assist when needed.

Managing stress is important, and these steps can help:

  • As mentioned above, recognize the early warning signs and do not wait until you are completely overwhelmed and no longer in control of what is occurring. 
  • Recognizing the warning signs also means identifying the sources of stress, such as taking on too much, arguing with other family members, or not saying no when you should. 
  • There are things you can change, but there are also things you cannot change. It is not always easy to change another person is not willing, but you can change your perspective and outlook. Even if this is a small change, it can make a big difference. 
  • Always take action to reduce stress and give back your control—simple things like going for a walk, exercise, meditation, going out for coffee, or just taking five minutes a day in complete silence. 

Tip Two—Keep Yourself Empowered and At Cause Over Your Environment

One of the number one contributors to caregiver burnout is feeling powerless and feeling like your environment is caving in on you. Unfortunately, this is an easy trap to fall into, and you end up feeling stuck and helpless. However, no matter the situation, you can feel empowered and at cause over your environment, meaning you are not feeling stuck and the environment is not adding to the stress. It is important to avoid this emotional trap of feeling sorry for yourself and searching for someone to blame.

Do not focus on why this is happening, but practice acceptance when you are faced with caregiving. You can spend a tremendous amount of time and energy dwelling on things you cannot change. Most caregiving situations are thrusted upon us because many ailments and injuries happen unexpectantly, especially as our elderly loved ones age. Focus on the solutions and managing the stress. However, if you have chosen to be a caregiver, it is important to embrace this choice. Moreover, acknowledge any resentment or burden you feel because you have made a choice to provide care and it is a choice you have to be responsible for.

Do not let caregiving take over your life and focus on how it has made you stronger as a person. Caregiving should not take over your entire existence, and you should invest in things that give your life meaning and purpose. Furthermore, focus on the things you can control, rather than stressing out over things you cannot control. Parting being cause over your environment is taking action and recognizing when you can make a situation better. Focusing on solutions helps with reducing stress and gives the ability to change the outcome. Some steps to consider include:

  • Identify the problem in front of you and look at the situation with an open mind because the real problem may not be as bad as what is initially thought.
  • Whether you like writing things down or not, write down a list of solutions and ask for input from friends, family, or other caregivers. 
  • Take a solution and try it because you will not know until you try. 
  • After you have tried one solution, take a look at the results, and ask yourself if it made things better. If the solution did not work, go onto the next solution, and so on. 
  • Take advantage of all of your resources and if it comes to the best possible solution even if it does not solve 100% of the problem.

Tip Three—Do Not Be Afraid to Ask for Help, Give Yourself a Break, and Take Care of Your Health

Part of maintaining your mental health when caregiving is asking for help—when asking for help, you are also giving yourself a break to take care of your health. Taking on all the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance will lead to burnout. Moreover, if you do not take adequate care of your physical, mental, and spiritual needs, you are more likely to become overwhelmed.

Do not be afraid to ask for help like respite care, for example, which is temporary care but can alleviate some of the stress. Enlist family and friends who live near you to run errands, grocery shop, or even cook and clean. Many communities have volunteers, and paid help can also provide support. Moreover, out of home respite programs could be an option to consider. Part of asking for help is speaking and spread the responsibility around—this is important within larger families where there are other siblings that can help.

When someone offers to help, always say yes and be willing to relinquish control if someone is offering to help. Do not be shy to accept help, and people and people are more apt to help if you are not micromanaging, giving orders, or insisting things are done a certain way. Taking these steps will allow you to give yourself a break. Part of taking a break is maintaining your personal relationships with friends, sharing your feelings, and taking part in activities that bring you joy. For example, this could be finding ways to pamper yourself or making yourself laugh and getting out of the house.

Now that you have the opportunity to take a break, you may want to focus on your health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. For example, exercise, eat healthily, get lots of sleep, go to church, practice your religious beliefs, and do things you enjoy. Taking these steps ensures you are stress-free and not becoming burned out—it does require discipline and being aware of when you need to ask for help, take a break, and focus on yourself.

Tips on How to Ask for Help:

  • Consider people in your life that have certain interests or abilities, like cooking, housekeeping, driving, or socializing, and reach out to these friends or family members. 
  • Try not to ask the same person repeatedly, especially if they never say no, because it does lead to them feeling obligated and feelings of resentment. 
  • Prepare a list of things that need doing and ask at the right time so as not to dump something on someone last minute. 
  • Be prepared for people to say no and do not take things personally because everyone has a different viewpoint on help and responsibility—it does not make them wrong or right; they just cannot help right now. 
  • When you ask for help be decisive and straight to the point because a person is more apt to help when they know what they are getting into. 

Tip Four—Knowledge is Power and Stay Educated About Being an Effective Caregiver

Part of being good at anything is staying informed and up to date. A good place to begin is to become educated about senior care. Online courses exist for personal caregivers—the course may focus on communication strategies for working with seniors, legal and ethical issues, working in the home, and caring for seniors at different ages with different needs. As you become more knowledgeable about senior care in general and specifically the care surrounding your loved one, you become better prepared to help them.

Additionally, this includes working with their family doctor because you may have to administer medications, injections, and even medical treatment. Basic first aid and CPR courses are always good to have, along with becoming familiar with the medications they and medical care they need. Caregivers discuss their loved one’s care with their physician regularly, and doing this successfully involves building a working relationship with the physician.

Tips on Maintaining a Working Relationship with Your Loved One’s Physician:

  • Prepare questions ahead of time and make a list of important concerns and problems. For example, these are issues you might want to discuss changes in symptoms, medications, or general health. 
  • Nursing help is vital because most caregiving questions relate to nursing care than to medicine. 
  • Make sure every appointment meets your needs and accommodates the questions or concerns you have. 
  • Call ahead to ensure the appointment is not delayed, take someone with you to ask questions you may not be comfortable asking, and use assertive communication. 

Tip Five—Join a Caregiver Support Group and Stay Connected to Other Caregivers

A caregiver support group is an excellent way to share your problems and connect with other people who are going through similar experiences and issues. During the pandemic, this could be online support groups, or there are also in-person support groups. Like any other support group, you talk about your feelings and get help from others experiencing similar problems. More importantly, you find out you are not alone, and you will feel better knowing other people are in the same situation.

Local support groups are people who live near each other and meet in a given place each week or month. The meetings provide face to face contact and a chance to make new friends while also get you out of the house. Meetings are usually at a set time, and you should attend them regularly to see any benefit from them. Moreover, most people in local support groups are familiar with local issues and resources. Your caregiver’s physician or the local hospital and even senior care facilities would know of local caregiver support groups.