Five Strategies for Family Caregivers

Some of the sweetest moments of my life happened when my aging parents were no longer able to take care of each other and my sister and I stepped in to care for them—which led directly to some of the most difficult moments of my life. Navigating our nation’s fragmented health care system, taking charge of major life decisions and providing an emotionally and physically nourishing environment for dearly loved elders is incredibly challenging. 

According to the Institute on Aging, these caregiving challenges usually fall to the women of the family. This is true whether you’re a sandwich mom (a younger woman who is raising young children while also caring for an aging parent) or a baby boomer who provides daily care for an elderly parent while entering her own retirement years. More than 75 percent of caregivers for elderly family members are female—and they spend 50 percent more time caregiving than their brothers or husbands. 

This can be incredibly stressful for the caregiver. Nearly 90 percent of caregivers in the US are family members or relatives, and millions of these caregivers suffer from anxiety, impaired immune function, heart disease, and other factors resulting in a higher mortality rate. So caregivers themselves need support to stay strong mentally, emotionally and physically. 

As women, we may tend to put others ahead of ourselves. Yet I would put self-care first on my list of strategies for caregivers.

Start with Self Care

During the years I helped my parents, my main strategy for self-care was practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique twice daily. This had already been my daily routine since age 19, so you’d think fitting it in would be easy, but frankly when you are caring for two parents with dementia, nothing is that easy. But I made it a priority, and sticking to my meditation practice was the best decision I made in those years. By late afternoon I’d often feel emotionally and physically drained, but after meditation I’d feel renewed, like I’d had a great night’s sleep. Many days I felt isolated and overwhelmed by their changing needs, but after meditation solutions would pop up. Best of all, getting in touch with my inner calm helped me stay loving and patient with my parents—which was so important to me. 

My friend and colleague Janet Hoffman also found her lifelong practice of TM essential to her well-being while caring for her 99-year-old father with dementia. He was living in her home, which meant she was responsible not only for the personal care of her father, but for the shopping, cooking, cleaning and medical appointments—all while pursuing a fulltime career as a national board member of TM for Women

“This was a time in life when the value of the TM technique was brought into powerful focus,” Janet says. “I woke up many days with deeply troubling feelings of concern as well as sadness plus a list of ‘to-dos’ that would have daunted a much younger woman. But I’d sit to meditate and find afterward that my dynamism and endurance had almost no boundaries. And then, no matter how demanding the day, my afternoon meditation relieved enormous fatigue, emotional pressure, and any feelings of helplessness, and made me calm and collected again.”

Janet also credits the TM technique with her ability to deal with the alienation and frustration that comes with caring for a loved one with dementia. She says that because her father was a remarkable man who dedicated most of his life to being a great provider for his family, he found the increasing helplessness associated with aging and dementia to be unusually challenging. 

“He seemed to resent me for his need of my help, and I believe that the disappearance of the closeness that we used to share was the biggest challenge for me,” she says. “If it weren’t for my years of meditation beforehand and my daily TM routine during this time, I don’t think I could have held up emotionally as well as I did. I noticed that I could bounce back quickly from moments of frustration or anger or hurt to being there for him the way he richly deserved.” 

Research on Caregiving Help

Recent research backs up these caregiver experiences. A new pilot study published in the International Archives of Nursing and Health Care journal found that caregivers who learned the Transcendental Meditation technique showed improvements in energy, inner calm, and resilience—plus reduced markers for anxiety. They also reported a boost in spiritual well-being and mood with less perceived stress.

“The vast majority of caregivers today are family members and nonprofessionals,” said Dr. Sanford Nidich, lead author of the study and professor of education at Maharishi University of Management. “Our research found significant and meaningful reductions in anxiety, depression, fatigue, and perceived stress, and an increase in spiritual well-being—meaningfulness in life and faith in the future.”

Dr. Charles Elder, a physician and researcher at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, Portland, Oregon, notes, “Family and professional caregivers experience a tremendous amount of psychological and physical stress that impacts their physical health and quality of life. It is very important that they learn how to take care of themselves for the sake of their own personal health and happiness.” 

Five Self-Care Strategies for Family Caregivers of Any Age

  1. Practice the Transcendental Meditation technique twice a day to lessen stress and boost energy and mood.
  2. Join an aerobics class, take a brisk morning walk, or take up running. Aerobic exercise is a proven stress-management tool. 
  3. Get family and neighbors involved. You need a solid support network so you don’t burn out.  Even if others are visiting your loved one and you remain in the room, it helps provide relief.
  4. Invite friends over and/or arrange to get of the house every day. Having a normal social life outside of your caregiving role is essential for maintaining emotional balance. 
  5. Join a caregiver support group to help manage the frustration, guilt and depression that caregivers often experience. If time is a constraint, try joining an online forum such as the  Caregiver Action Network.  Even reading other caregivers’ stories online can be encouraging.  

Take care of yourself: contact your local TM teacher

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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