Who cares for the carers? The importance of external and self care in carers

Carers are a pivotal part of our society, however they are often forgotten about and receive little support. This article is for both carers, and people who know carers in their life.

Time To Read: 10 minutes

A carer can be defined as a family member or paid helper who helps to look after someone who is ill, injured or sick. Often it an unpaid family member who takes on this role while still navigating the needs of their own life such as full-time work, education and child care. There can be all types of carers:

  • Carer for the elderly
  • Carer for a child and family member
  • Carer for someone with a disability 
  • Carer for someone with mental health challenges 

Carers are one of the most overlooked and underappreciated cohorts. As a society, we rely on carers to take the burden off the healthcare system, however, offer little appreciation or support for this unpaid labour. Who cares for the carer when the carer can’t cope?

This article will be divided into two sections: the first will be the challenges carers face, aimed at educating others and also validating the experience of carers. 

The second will be support for carers, written for carers. This includes both self and external care. 

Challenge 1: Carers often feel they are not doing enough 

Having the weight of another person’s well-being on your shoulders is a weight that carers must carry with little to no reprieve. Carers often feel guilty about not doing more to help their loved ones. They may feel they should be doing more, and they may worry that they have let their loved one down by being too busy with work or other commitments. Some carers are worried that they are not looking after their loved one well enough. This can be a particular problem if you are new to caring, or if the person you look after has complex needs.

Carers often feel guilty about not doing enough to help their loved ones and this can lead them to feel overloaded and stressed. It is important for carers to remember that they have already done a lot just by making the decision to become a carer.

Carers can often feel an immense amount of shame for how they are feeling. Carer fatigue, compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout are all common (and expected) issues that carers will face, however, there is often guilt associated with experiencing this and a feeling that the person should not be feeling this way, that they are ungrateful or selfish. Carers may struggle, worrying about what they ‘should’ be feeling – more upset, less stoic, more maternal, kinder, more capacity, and the list goes on. Carers may feel that caring does not come naturally to them and that the loved one would be better off with someone else (hint: nobody is made for full-time caring, not even the most maternal and gentle souls). 

These feelings can make it hard for carers to talk about their experience and their own struggles. Stigma and fear of judgement also play into this, increasing feelings of isolation, loneliness and further digging into burnout. 

Challenge 2: Carers often don’t have time to think about what they feel and adjust accordingly

You are a carer. You are busy, and you must be practical and think about what you are going to do next. You need to be flexible and adaptable when things don’t go according to plan, or if someone needs extra help. You need to cope with unexpected changes and surprises coming up at short notice, like trips away from home or new equipment being delivered which may not fit into your routine as planned. Carers essentially have multiple full-time jobs, and it can feel as though there are not enough hours in the day to get the necessities done, let alone time to reflect. Self-care and mental wellness may feel like a luxury that many carers do not have.

Challenge 3: It can be hard for carers to let their hair down without guilt getting in the way

Another hurdle carers face is if the stars do align and they get the chance to relax or take time away for themselves, guilt or even grief can get in the way. Self-care and activities that fill your cup only work if you allow yourself to take it all in, this can be a challenge for carers knowing that the person they are caring for is at home, perhaps unable to partake in fun activities. There can also be an amount of guilt associated with wanting to get away, with the relief of being out of the house, and feeling as though you are a bad person for thinking this way (another hot tip: you’re not).

Carers are often under pressure to stay at home because they have been told that this is the best place for a person who needs support with daily living activities (e.g., personal care). 

Care for the carer

The task of being a carer is an enormous one, yet many people don’t realise the pressure it places on the carer themselves. Hopefully, after reading the challenges, you have more awareness of the challenges carers face every day. Carers can get caught up in making practical preparations and often forget how to support themselves emotionally. In mental health we often talk about being unable to pour from an empty cup, yet it is common for carers to feel as though this is all they do.

So what can we do about it? First, let me convince you of the importance

Why carers need support

Taking care of ourselves is often the last priority in our daily lives, especially for carers. Even without the caregiver aspect, we can be so wrapped up in taking care of family, friends and our careers that we completely forget to take care of ourselves. When adding an unpaid caring role on top of that, it can feel like there is no time. 

However, when you have a carer with depression or a caregiver who can no longer cope, it is only a matter of time before something has to give. Have you heard the term make room for wellness otherwise you’ll be making room for illness – This is a promise, not a risk.

When dealing with long-term stress or excessive fatigue, it puts us at greater risk for illness. Our bodies are simply not made for prolonged and chronic stress, and if we do not regulate our cortisol, we will get sick and suffer from physical ailments. 

Who cares for the carers?

  1. A good GP

A singular GP allows you to not have to explain your story over again. They have the full picture and will be able to pick up any abnormalities over time when the whole picture is put together, rather than multiple doctors getting small chunks of information here and there. Find someone you are comfortable talking to, and try to check in every couple of months

  1. A psychologist 

A good therapist or psychologist can be worth their weight in gold. They can help carers with coping strategies, but also grief counselling to work through the loss of your life pre-carer. Having a space where you are allowed to voice that grief, regret and dark thoughts that often cannot be shared with family without judgement is essential

  1. Carer supports

If you’re in Australia, Carer Gateway is a great tool to utilise for support. Online communities such as Facebook groups can be extremely beneficial, as can formal support groups. Carers can potentially access respite services and community support. Getting recognised by the government (ServicesAustralia) as a Carer is possible. Carer payments, carer allowances and carer supplements exist, however getting recognised as a carer can be an arduous task and a further barrier for carers. 

  1. Family and friends 

Having a large network of family and friends who get it goes a long way. Someone to have a vent to and people that may be able to help out practically here and there can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

How carers can care for themselves: 8 achievable self-care tips for carers

Unfortunately for the carers reading this, I am not going to go gentle on you here. You move heaven and earth every day to make sure the needs of those around you are met, you do the impossible day in and day out on an empty tank. You therefore absolutely do have the capacity for these suggestions, you just have to believe you’re worth the prioritisation (another hint: you are)

  1. Find time for something you enjoy 

Utilise your support network (and if you don’t have one, we can help you build one) and do something that brings you joy. It can be big or small, but you have to have something for you. Music, reading, walking, crafts, online yoga from your bedroom, whatever is your thing, prioritise it at least once a week

  1. Get out in nature

20 minutes in nature (bonus for taking your shoes off) can reduce cortisol levels significantly, a bit of biohacking can go a long way

  1. Sunlight when waking

Get out in the sun as soon as you wake up for as long as you can. No sunglasses, not through a window either. This helps boost your mood and also helps you sleep that night

  1. Go to your own appointments 

The boring stuff is self-care too. Take your medication, make and keep your appointments 

  1. The stuff you already know 

I will put this into one point because I know you’ve been told this before. But eating well, getting good sleep and moving your body are all evidence-based ways to increase coping and tolerance, as well as enhance your mood

  1. Invest in yourself 

Mindspace Training has an app that does all this for you. It is neuroscience-based, meaning by completing the activities, we are changing your brain for the better. It increases your coping, regulates your emotions and also teaches you practical and usable skills in the moment. Check it out here. It is 5 minutes a day, don’t tell me you don’t have that if it means you can move through life easier

  1. Stay connected

Connection is one of the forgotten aspects of mental wellness, but often the most important. Where do you get your connection? Find it and prioritise it. It can be both from friends and loved ones, but also through shared experiences such as support groups or forums. Best of all, these online platforms are active twenty-four hours a day so you can reach out for advice or just to talk when you need it most. So don’t feel like you need to go it alone – get online and take advantage of the technologies available for connecting with people who truly understand what life as a carer can be like!

  1. Ask for help 

Don’t underestimate the power of support. When things get tough, it’s so important to remember that you are never alone and that there are plenty of people who want to see you succeed and be there to help. There are also plenty of other people in the same boat as well (which is where that connection comes in handy). Especially true for new carers and carers without experience, asking for help is key to your success and mental wellness. 

Those around us often don’t realise we are struggling, especially if struggle is an unfortunate default for your everyday life. Those that do know we are struggling often don’t know how to help, so swallow your pride and tell them what you need. Asking for help is a strength that many people are not well-versed in. Showcasing and demonstrating to others how it is done also helps them to be able to do it themselves.

  1. Do not fall into the productivity trap 

You may feel uneasy or guilty in a silent moment. Feeling as though you should be doing something useful such as self-work, attending a support group or replying to unread messages. This pressure can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Do not force it. Allow yourself the quiet moments as they are self-care too. Do not allow the pressure of productivity to get you, you’re doing enough. The more your force activities such as self-improvement, the less effective they are

Everyone’s story is different and their stories and experiences matter

When you’re supporting a friend or family member with illness or injury, your needs may change as the situation progresses and time goes on. This is why it can be hard for not only carers, but those around them to know how to help. It is important for the friends and families of carers to understand and learn what the carer is going through, how their life has changed since taking on this unpaid role, and how to support them in any way they can. One of the ways in which we can help carers is to be aware of the emotional needs they have, as well as their practical ones. As we highlighted, carers often feel guilty about taking time for themselves and allowing themselves to relax or do something they enjoy. 

The fear of judgement among carers is real and debilitating. It can be hard to admit that you dislike this role you did not ask for, that you wish you had your life back and that you are struggling. None of these things makes the carer a bad person, if anything it makes them more magnificent as they are sticking to something that brings them significant challenge and hardship. Feelings of ‘others have it harder’ and ‘I should be grateful’ act as barriers to voicing very real and valid emotions. 

What does this mean practically? 

For family and friends of carers, it means providing emotional and practical support where possible. It means educating yourself about the challenges of caring and the help available. It is checking in and keeping your door open for a judgement-free chat. It is sending resources and asking if there is anything you can do to help and meaning it. It is taking from their plate, not adding to it. It is making small decisions wherever you can such as what coffee shop to meet at or what to have for dinner. 

For carers, it is taking your superpower of making it work, and investing some of it into yourself. It is making choices that move you towards thriving, not surviving. It is slowly filling your cup over time and increasing your coping skills so things don’t feel as overwhelming. It is making small choices such as taking the stars instead of the lift, knowing that somewhere inside your body and brain, that is helping. 

About the author

Angela Harrisonis the founder of Mindspace Training and has been working in the mental health industry for over 7 years. She is a resiliency specialist and is passionate about changing the way society approaches mental health. Her mission is to move from reaction to prevention; giving people back the power to create wellness for themselves.

If you are in Australia and need to reach out for support, please seek help from one of the following:

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