Caring for an aging loved one can be an incredibly rewarding experience. But the stress of family caregiving can take its toll. Primary caregivers report everything from skipping doctor appointments and adopting poor eating habits to developing chronic illnesses and experiencing symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, once caregiver burnout takes hold, it can be difficult to regain balance.

As a caregiver, your first responsibility has to be to yourself. Just like the flight attendant says before every takeoff, “In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.” If you don’t make time for yourself, both you and your loved one suffer.

Here are some self-care tips to help prevent caregiver stress and burnout.

Just Say No

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You can’t make time for yourself if you say yes to every request that comes your way. Caregivers often take on too many responsibilities out of a sense of obligation or guilt, a desire to be polite, or a fear of being perceived as not being strong enough. But when you say no to something (or someone) that won’t enhance your life, you’re able to spend more time on your own desires and goals. The time when you should say yes is when someone offers to help. If a family member or friend offers to drive your aging loved one to a doctor appointment or pick up their groceries for the week, don’t be shy about accepting their help.

Schedule “Me” Time

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Get out your calendar, and find 15 minutes every day when you unplug and give yourself a break. It might seem silly to actually pencil it in, but if you don’t, it’ll be the first thing to go when life gets busy. Give yourself permission to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea or call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a while. In addition to taking a short break every day to regain your energy, make sure you schedule more substantial “me” time on a weekly and monthly basis, whether that’s spending Saturday working in the garden, going on a date night with your spouse or getting a manicure with your daughter.

Start a Walking Group

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Caregivers spend so much time thinking about the health of their loved ones that they forget to take care of their own health. Not only do you need to keep up with your doctor visits, eat a balanced diet and get plenty of sleep, but you also need to prioritize exercise — even when you’re stressed and tired. Start a walking group with other caregivers, and schedule a 30-minute walk once a week. The exercise will boost your energy and relieve your stress, and the support will give you time to talk about your problems and empathize with others.

If you are feeling anxious, depressed or irritable and are having difficulty sleeping or worsening health problems, you’re already on your way to caregiver burnout. Make more time for yourself today so you can be a better caregiver tomorrow.

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