• The majority of carers fall ill due to the stress and pressure of caring for a loved one, but there are ways to safeguard your health and enjoy life whilst caring

  • Sara Challice, author of Who Cares?, shares her own experience of being a carer and offers five self-care tips for others

  • You can find therapists and counsellors on welldoing.org who have specific experience or interest in working with carers – start your search here 

Caring for a loved one may not sound like much, but there can be so much involved, mentally, emotionally and physically. Whilst caring, we often feel we need to be a pillar of strength for our loved ones, and often forget our own wants and needs.

When my boyfriend was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour, it was a shock to us all. He had been so fit and well. I just told him to get better and that I was there for him, not realising the impact it would have on my own health over the coming years.

At first, my support for Neal was emotional. I would put my arm around him, keep him positive and drive him to the hospital for chemotherapy each week. But as Neal slowly deteriorated and became disabled, I gave up my career to care for him full-time. As I cared for him at home, my world became smaller, as I focused my love, time and energy into looking after him.

Five years later Neal had a stroke and became bedbound and unable to speak. A huge blow to both of us, but I struggled on. In not knowing how long he had left, I suppressed my emotions and ignored my own health. 

The cracks finally started to show when my immune system became depleted and I fell mentally and physically unwell. I rang Jenny, a nurse at our local hospice for help where Neal went to a day centre each week. I had previously turned down respite to have a break because I had felt guilty leaving Neal in the hospice whilst I had time out. She told me it was too late to have a break when I had fallen ill. Carers needed regular breaks. She then organised emergency respite and Neal went into a  nursing home whilst I recovered. 

During my time away from caring, I realised I needed to make changes if I wanted to regain my health and survive caring. I had been abstaining from and enduring life for too long.

A few weeks later, I was back at home caring for Neal, but this time I was also caring for me. I discovered new ways to look after myself and enjoy life again, even whilst caring for a terminally ill loved one. 

As a carer, there are many ways to help you look after your own health and enjoy life. Here are some simple but powerful tips:

1) Check in with yourself

How are you? We are usually so busy caring for loved ones, that we ignore our own health, but it is vital to check in with yourself regularly to safeguard your own health. 

You can do this in a number of ways:

  • Face-to-face – Obviously, during the lockdown, this has become tricky, but talking over a garden wall or in an open space is now acceptable, as long as we keep a two-metre distance. Whilst caring, I would check in with my neighbour once a week, over a cup of tea. We would discuss how we were feeling (she was also a carer), what had gone well and what hadn’t. We would then discuss what needed to change. Do you have a good friend or family members you could check in with, for a short time, once a week?
  • Over the phone or via Skype – If you don’t have someone to check in with nearby, you could speak to a good friend or family member over the phone, Zoom or Skype, on a regular basis, to discuss how you’re feeling and how you could improve your situation.
  • Journal – A great way to connect in with yourself is to journal (a fancy name for a pad and paper!) Write down the issues that are arising for you right now and how you are feeling. Getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper can help you to observe what is actually going on. I would then write down what I needed to do to look after myself and underline it, so it stood out – it’s like a personal coaching session. 

2) Take a break

Caring can become monotonous and relentless. Often a day can seem like one long list of endless chores – not a healthy way to live. Try taking a breather between each task to do something you enjoy. It could just mean having a 10 minute kip, reading a book or going out for a short walk. Because if you just do this and just do that, you’ll end up just falling into bed shattered! Give yourself permission and take regular breaks.

3) Surround yourself with those who care

Your support network is key to helping you through these challenging times. It’s important to keep in contact with good friends. They can pick us up when we’re down and I certainly felt my friends kept me sane! Also, be aware that not all friends and family will have the love and compassion you need right now.

Who is there for you? Who makes you feel better? Can you make a list of family, friends, charities and any other services that are there to help and support you? You may be pleasantly surprised at how many are there for you. Focus on those who do care and let them know how much you appreciate them.

4) Drop the mask and ask!

Whilst caring, we often put on a brave face to remain strong for those needing our support. In accepting our situation, we may struggle on alone, whilst suppressing our emotions – not a healthy way to live.

It’s important to let others know how you are truly feeling. If they don’t know, how can they offer help? If you struggle to open up, you could try doing what I did when asking for help. I wrote

down everything that I felt I needed to say to another, then read each point to them over the phone. This helped to keep the conversation on track and get my points across.

Also, if you ask someone to come and help you, let them know how appreciative you are. Getting that date in a diary will also make the commitment more certain. 

5) Focus on the good stuff

Carers are often in survival mode, focusing on the issues that arise, that we may overlook all the great things in our lives. But it’s still important to focus on and appreciate all that we do have. This can help shift our mood. If I was feeling low, I would think of five things I was grateful for. It might have just been the hot shower that morning or Neal’s love, but as I continued, I instantly felt better.

Sara is the author of the new book Who Cares? How to Care for Yourself Whilst Caring for a Loved One. Sara has also written a Carers Masterclass course, which will be online soon. Visit https://www.whocares4carers.com/ for more information.

Further reading

What is burnout?

Self-care tips for empathetic people

Compassion fatigue in the caring professions

Being grateful keeps me grounded in times of trouble

Secondary traumatic stress: the carers' curse