When you’re caring for a loved one, it’s easy to put aside your own needs. That’s what Tina Saratsiotis, 46, discovered while caring for her mother, who has limited mobility due to severe arthritis. “I was walking around like a drunk because I was so sleep-deprived,” she says. “I had aches and pains and couldn’t concentrate.”
Tina, a freelance writer in Baltimore, told her godmother she was struggling, and her godmother suggested she hire part-time caregivers to give herself a break. Although she still watches her mother for half of each day, she can now work while the hired caregiver takes over from 9 AM until 3 PM. And if she wants to go out in the evening, she pays someone for the extra hours. “I thought no one would be as good at caring for my mother as I was,” she says. “Then I realized I couldn’t control everything.”
As Tina learned, caregiving can take a toll on your health and well-being. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that middle-aged women who care for an ill or disabled spouse are almost six times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety compared to those with no such responsibilities. In another Harvard study, researchers found that women who spend nine or more hours per week caring for an ill or disabled spouse increase their heart disease risk twofold.
The average length of a caregiver’s job is almost five years, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) in San Francisco. Take these steps to safeguard your health and nurture your well-being:
Make sleep a priority.
“Not sleeping predisposes caregivers to depression, anxiety and health problems,” says Barry Jacobs, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers.
Tina takes a nap when her mother does, and she often rests when the hired caregivers are at her house. She sneaks in extra Zzzs by using a video baby monitor. “I can see if my mother is getting up,” she says. “That way, I don’t have to get out of bed every time she makes a noise.”
Stay on top of your own checkups.
“Make a note of all the checkups you’re used to getting, such as physicals and mammograms,” suggests Richard Schulz, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. iPad, iPhone and iPod-Touch apps can help you do this.
Share the tasks.
Make a list of your caregiving tasks and delegate them to family members and friends. “One of my clients wrote down his caregiving tasks on index cards and put them in a box,” says Dr. Jacobs. “When people offered to help, he would hand them the box and say, ‘Pick a card.’”
Do something for yourself every day.
“One woman I know goes upstairs every day from 3 PM to 4 PM and paints,” says Dr. Jacobs. If you need help, consider asking a family member or friend, or put your loved one in an adult day care program.
Set aside time to do some deep-breathing exercises, perhaps while you listen to quiet music, recommends Dr. Schulz. “It can be as brief as a couple of minutes or a half hour,” he says. “Do it whenever you feel stress.” If you need instruction, find a class that offers relaxation training for caregivers, he advises. State and county agencies on aging offer such classes. “These programs also help caregivers identify what activities relax them: walking, being with friends or going to a movie, for instance,” says Dr. Schulz.
Make time for friends.
“For a long time I felt guilty about going out with friends,” says Tina. “Now I say, ‘It’s just as important for me to do this as it is for my mom to nap.’” Keeping up with friends can actually help you stay healthy. A study published in the journal Health Psychology found that lonely people had a poorer immune response to a flu vaccine and experienced more stress, poor sleep and elevations in the stress hormone cortisol. Another study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, found that people with more social support had less trouble sleeping.
Find a support group.
To locate a group in your area, go to caregiver.com . Or try an online support group; the Family Caregiver Alliance  offers four of them. Your healthcare provider or your loved one’s physician can also give you a referral.