We all know the airline adage, “In case of a drop in cabin pressure, put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others.” Caregivers, both professionals and those who offer support for a loved one at home, admit that they often put that proverbial mask on others first. It is almost impossible not to, they contend.
As the number of professional caregivers declines and there is more burnout among all the caregiving ranks, self-care has to come first, experts confirm. Whether in the form of taking more time off or practicing meditation during the free minutes they have, caregivers need replenishment.
“The consistent act of giving to others can lead to very real feelings of burnout, exhaustion and stress, which ultimately has a negative impact not only on our own well-being but also on the well-being of those that we teach, work and live with,” said Charleston resident Blair Perry, caregiver of 18 years, full-time pediatric occupational therapist and full-time mom of three boys. “Managing and trying to keep up with it all can be very chaotic, dysregulating, overwhelming and just plain exhausting.”
“We get calls every day from loved ones – from burned-out daughters and sons who are doing an amazing job of caring for their parents,” said Anne Marie Long, CEO of Senior Resource Specialists. “They will say that they are snapping at their mom, and they don’t want to but they are so tired.”
“It is no wonder they are exhausted,” Long added. “Caregivers in hospitals and community living places work in shifts. Many sons, daughters, parents and friends are working 24-hour shifts nonstop as they care for a loved one.”
Long and her husband, Joshua, opened Senior Resource Specialists in October 2022 to help seniors and caregivers connect with any resource they need – a financial advisor, a real estate agent or an expert on veterans’ resources, for example.
“Caregivers and spouses have this admirable sense of duty; they feel bad about leaving,” said Long. “But they need to take breaks. Otherwise, as they remain the sole caregiver, they lose their relationship with their spouse or mom. They are seen primarily as ‘the caregiver.’”
A caregiver taking a break is no different than parents hiring a babysitter so they can go out and relax, Long noted.
Regina Ervin, the administrative director for Bon Secours Home Health and Hospice has been in health care for more than 20 years, the last five years at Bon Secours St. Francis. She has seen just how hard it is to help those who care for others take care of themselves.
“They are so busy taking care of others that they are not taking advantage of resources out there,” Ervin explained. “There are plenty resources; caregivers just need to know it’s OK, even encouraged, that they use them.”
“A lot of caregivers, especially family members, don’t want to ask for help,” Ervin added. “Part of the hesitation is because they don’t want to be a burden, and the other part often involves their pride.”
It’s so important that they push past those hesitations and ask for help, she said.
“[Caregivers] are constantly caring for others and are very quick to forget about ourselves,” said Perry. “But, at the end of the day, if I am not looking inward and constantly assessing myself, then how am I going to be the best version of myself to then be able to care for others in a positive and beneficial way?”
As leaders, when clinicians take care of themselves they inspire other members of a support team. When other team members see a leader prioritizing her own well-being, they are more likely to do the same,” Ervin said.
“When I have a very busy day or week, I, too, have to recharge,” explained Dr. Sarah K. Wharton of Cypress Chiropractic & Wellness in Charleston. “Much like a phone battery, if you use the battery down to the lowest point, it takes longer to recharge.”
Health benefits at Bon Secours St. Francis, like many other places, cover participation in programs such as Life Matters and the Be Well Program, which are tremendous for self-care.
Attention to the body’s condition is instrumental in choosing care proportional to a caregiver’s needs.
“Our nervous system responds to everything in life, including stressors, whether good or bad. It’s important to take care of that part of ourselves,” Dr. Wharton explained.
Dr. Wharton provides chiropractic care to many caregivers, including nurses, who often work long, awkward hours. Their work is strenuous and may require them to lift and move their patients, she added. Many are on their feet much of the day.
“I’ll see your typical low-back pain, low-back subluxation and lots of tension in the lower neck and shoulders,” she explained. “It’s hard for caregivers to make time because they are working so hard, but it would benefit them to get their nervous systems cleared of interference,” said Dr. Wharton.
In addition, Dr. Wharton believes caregivers should make time for quality, conscious rest. Connecting with nature and rest without distractions also should be part of caregivers’ self-care routine, she said.
“I find that it’s very important to find time in nature,” she asserted. “Health care professionals are typically in offices with fluorescent lighting and in concrete buildings for hours on end. I encourage my patients to get out in nature – a park, the beach or even simply walking around their neighborhood. Exercising keeps us strong both physically and mentally.”
Like Perry, Dr. Wharton cites the importance of a healthy, balanced diet for health care professionals and caregivers of all kinds.
“The fuel that you put into your body is very important,” she explained. “We are using our resources to help others, so we have to fuel ourselves as often and as best as possible. Hydration, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins – what we put into our bodies is our fuel.”
“Caring for ourselves is one of the best gifts we can give to our students and communities,” Perry confirmed.
Check with your Employee Assistance Program for additional resources.
By Isabel Alvarez Arata