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Help others by helping yourself first


 If you take care of a family member or loved one with a long-term medical condition, you might often put yourself last. It’s understandable—you want to make sure that the other person is always taken care of, especially if you feel you’re the only one who can really give them the help that they need.


But is your selfless focus hurting both of you?


“Many caregivers try to be as selfless as possible. The problem is that this can be overdone pretty easily,” explained Dr. James McKenna, a Geisinger family physician and geriatrician. “Think of it this way—when oxygen masks drop down on a plane, you need to put your mask on first to be able to help others. Being a caregiver is similar; it should go both ways. Help them, but don’t forget to help yourself.”


For caregivers, it is common to put off sleep, doctors’ appointments, socialization, a healthy diet and more. Consequently, it’s easy for caregivers to suffer from sleep deprivation, drug and alcohol abuse, increased risk of illnesses, depression and high blood pressure.


The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that spouses between the age of 66 and 96 who are acting as caregivers have a 63 percent greater chance of dying when compared to those who aren’t caregivers.


Practicing self-care is important for your health, and it makes you a better caregiver in the long run. Here are some self-care tips for caregivers:


Get centered, take control

Taking care of a loved one for an extended period of time can make you feel off-balance and not in control. This could lead to anxiety and stress, and could contribute to health risks such as high blood pressure.


“One solution to helplessness is self-care exercises like centering and really tuning in to your body and mind,” said Dr. McKenna. “Make sure you’re getting what you need.”


Centering is any activity that creates calm through focus. Activities like yoga, prayer, meditation, running, walking and more are all good examples of centering exercises. When you center yourself, you’re able to relax your body and collect your thoughts. Are you tired? Are you in pain? Are you lonely?


Centering is a way to step back and get a clearer picture. It gives you time to focus on yourself. With a calm mind, you can prioritize what needs to be done and regain a sense of control.


Reclaim your social life

“When relatives become caregivers, one of the many things they tend to give up is their social lives,” said Dr. Mckenna. “This may be fine short-term, but it is not sustainable. Humans are social by nature, and a lack of social life could cause depression, loneliness and less desire to socialize.”


Caregivers usually neglect their social lives because it requires planning, effort and money. Some caregivers may even feel guilty about leaving their relative to socialize.

“To be clear, it’s not selfish to have a social life,” said Dr. McKenna. “A social life is an essential part of being human. Giving up your social life will ultimately hurt you as a caregiver too.”


Schedule some time with a friend or a group of friends. The easiest solution may be to invite friends over to your house. For those who feel that they don’t have any time, consider going during medical downtime—like when your relative is going in for x-rays or another procedure where you can’t accompany them.


Fitting in socialization time will help relieve some of the stress you’ve accumulated and provide someone to talk with. This will help energize you and make you a better caregiver.


Don’t go it alone

It’s easy to feel alone as a caregiver. You may feel like you’re the only one who knows how to properly take care of your relative. You may even be the only person who has offered to take care of them.

It’s easy to feel alone as a caregiver. You may feel like you’re the only one who knows how to properly take care of your relative. You may even be the only person who has offered to take care of them.

It’s important to get help when caring for someone.


Try to divide duties with someone else. Ask someone else who can help watch your relative or help you take care of them. When doing this, be assertive. Use phrases like, “I would like to go out Saturday from 9-12; I need you to take care of Dad for that time.” If you need help, don’t wait for an invitation to ask someone.


“When you think about a hospital, you don’t have the same doctor and nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Dr. McKenna. “You need to take breaks to deliver the best care. You can be the lead caregiver, but you still need other people to help you.”


If there’s no one else close to you who can help, consider getting professional help. Most hospitals have a social services department that can help you take care of your relative. Look into hiring a full- or part-time caregiver, or consider bringing your relative to an adult daytime care program.


James Mckenna, DO, is a primary care physician and geriatrician at Geisinger Mt. Pleasant. To schedule an appointment with Dr. McKenna or another primary care physician, please call 570-342-8500 or visit

Caring for the caregiver