Self-Care for Caregivers: 10 Tips for Caring for a Loved One with Dementia

Caregiving for a loved one with dementia can be an emotionally overwhelming and physically demanding job. As a caregiver, it is easy to put all of your time and energy into taking care of your loved one, but it is important to remember that taking care of your emotions and your nervous system are just as crucial. Focusing on your overall health ought to be a priority, as self-care for caregivers is care for the receiver too.

Effects of Caregiving on Caregivers

Caregiving can quickly lead to burnout, stress, depression, and a compound of health issues that arise from prolonged stress & poor mental health. Many caregivers report insufficient time to sleep, exercise, or otherwise maintain healthy habits, putting them at risk for developing chronic illness. When you’re a caregiver, your nervous system is often in active threat response because you are focusing on someone else’s safety. That can take a toll. In fact, surveys reveal that nearly half of caregivers have two or more chronic diseases—some of which are themselves risk factors for dementia. 

Why Is Self-Care Important?

Self-care for caregivers is essential to their continued health and ability to care for their loved one long term. It is important to recognize that taking care of yourself is taking care of your loved one: when you prioritize your own health and well-being, you are better equipped to provide quality care to your loved one with dementia.

Barriers to Self-Care for Caregivers

There are many logistical barriers that can get in the way of sufficient self-care for caregivers, but oftentimes, it is emotional resistance and contradicting beliefs that keep one from pursuing solutions and creating time for themselves.

For example, these are some commonly expressed worries among caregivers:

  • It is selfish of me to prioritize my own health.
  • Caring for myself is neglecting my loved one.
  • I fear I will do a poor job if I am not always providing care.
  • If I ask for help, it will reveal that I am an inadequate caregiver.
  • I am responsible for my loved one’s health and quality of life.
  • Only if I do everything right will my loved one be okay.
  • I owe all of my time to my loved one; that is what they deserve/what I promised them.
  • My family will think less of me if I take time for myself.

If you have had any of these thoughts or worries as a caregiver, you are not alone. It is natural to feel the weight of your loved one in these ways. However, it is important to understand that these are misconceptions that can increase anxiety and make it impossible to give yourself the care you need.

Before you can take steps toward sustainable self-care, it is important to identify mental barriers like these that might keep you from accepting care from yourself and others. Once you do, here are 10 more steps you can take toward better self-care and therefore better care for your loved one.

1. Learn More about Dementia and Cognitive Decline

A pillar of self-care for caregivers is stress reduction, and one important, practical way to reduce stress is to take the time to learn about cognitive decline and dementia and how it is affecting the behaviors, emotions, and abilities of your loved one. Whether they are experiencing early memory loss or late-stage dementia, it is helpful to understand what changes you can expect so that not only are you better equipped to provide caregiving support, but also prepared to process your own emotional responses to these changes in someone you know and love.

2. Set Realistic Expectations

Don’t overwhelm yourself with an overloaded to-do list. As a caregiver, you want the best for your loved one, and you likely have high expectations for the care you provide. It is easy for these high expectations to turn into unachievable goals, so remember:

  • Setting your expectations too high is only setting yourself up for disappointment.
  • Your productivity is not a reflection of your love, dedication, or adequacy as a caregiver.

Instead, start by writing down all your goals. Then, prioritize these goals based on what matters the most to you and establish timelines that feel manageable. If the tasks that absolutely must be done today do not feel manageable, ask for help.

3. Accept Help

Asking for and accepting help is one of the most important, yet often most difficult, acts of self-care for caregivers. As a caregiver, you deserve support just as much as the person you are caring for, and you may be surprised at how willing and eager others are to help.

Plus, by delegating tasks that others could do, you can free up your time and energy to focus on the most important aspects of caregiving, like spending time with your loved one and taking care of your own health. If you are struggling to ask for help, there are a few things that might help:

  • Firstly, remember that people want to help and that asking for help is not weak or shameful.
  • Make a list of people in your social circle who have offered to help, categorizing their offers as practical, emotional, or spiritual.
  • Categorize your needs in the same way, and set priorities on your tasks to inform clear and direct communication.

4. Take Breaks

Self-care does not have to happen all at once at the beginning or end of your day. Self-care is most impactful when it appears intentionally throughout your day.

It can be as simple as taking a walk around the block or sitting alone for a few minutes between activities, but these little moments of rest are essential in preserving your energy and managing stress throughout the day. Though it may seem obvious, interrupting the day with breaks requires intention. You may be surprised at how little you pause during the day when you don’t actively try.

5. Maintain Healthy Habits

The health of caregivers is integral to the health of care recipients. When we are busy, distracted, or overwhelmed, sometimes the first things to go are the most essential, so a core aspect of self-care for caregivers is being intentional to maintain a few basic habits that are vital to long-term health, and brain health in particular. Something we always talk about. Focus on our 6 Pillars of Brain Health and do things like:

  • Sitting down and eating nutritious meals that support your brain and overall health, such as vegetables and protein-rich foods
  • Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week—especially in nature where exercise can double as a therapeutic reset
  • Ensuring at least 7 and a half hours of restful sleep each night, which is integral to so many of the body’s vital functions

Many caregivers have to work extra hard to maintain their health, and supplementation offers one way to provide your body additional support and to sustain healthy aging. Studies have shown, for example, that Vitamin D3, Folate, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin B-6, and Choline can help with longevity and support brain health as well. Making brain and emotional health your priorities are some of the ways you can care for yourself.

6. Practice Gratitude

Practicing gratitude—thinking of one thing you’re grateful for every morning or writing a letter of appreciation, for example—can help you recognize the positive aspects of your caregiving journey, as well as grow your appreciation for yourself as a caregiver.

A gratitude practice does not have to be forced or falsely positive; it simply encourages you to direct your attention at the things you appreciate in others and yourself, in order to feel more fulfilled and energized. This can help to build your self confidence, improve your relationship with your loved one with dementia, as well as help you feel more connected to the people around you for a stronger sense of support and belonging.

7. Remember to Breathe

Deep breathing is a powerful tool in reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and promoting overall well-being. Deep breaths can increase the oxygen flow in your body, which can help you feel more relaxed and focused.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, is a simple, quick, and deeply relaxing exercise that can easily be integrated into your routine, or practiced over a break, to breathe calm into your day.

8. Take Time for What You Love

Creating time and space for hobbies and personal growth can be a particularly challenging aspect of self-care for caregivers. As nonessential activities, it can be easy to feel that recreational, creative, or educational activities are overly indulgent.

But in fact, these activities are crucial to reducing stress, sustaining a strong sense of purpose and selfhood, and maintaining sharp cognitive function, which is important not only to the longevity of your own brain health, but your ability to provide the best possible care to your loved one, too.

9. Stay Connected

As a caregiver, it can be easy to feel isolated and disconnected from the world outside of your caregiving relationship. For this reason, it is particularly important to invest time in your other relationships with friends and family. Whether a friend who always makes you laugh or a family member who is a great listener, staying connected with loved ones can help you feel more balanced and energized.

Additionally, dementia caregiver support groups can provide a safe and supportive space for you to share your experiences and connect with others who are going through similar challenges. Talking with others who understand what you are going through can help alleviate feelings of isolation and provide valuable insights and tips for coping with the stresses of caregiving.

10. Get Support

In addition to support groups, getting mental health support from a professional can be beneficial for managing stress and maintaining emotional wellbeing. Emotional resilience psychotherapy is a form of therapy that Dr. Rusk focuses on at the Brain and Behavior Clinic. It is all about healing emotional trauma responses to improve cognitive and behavioral symptoms. This therapy can help caregivers cope with the emotional toll of caregiving and improve their overall quality of life.

It is essential to remember that self-care is an act of care for your loved one too, and that receiving and seeking support is not a sign of weakness.

If you are a caregiver for a loved one with dementia, reach out to the Brain and Behavior Clinic, and work with our team of experienced therapists, neuropsychologists, and other brain health specialists to develop personalized brain health plans that optimize your cognitive health and the overall wellbeing of your nervous system and that of your loved ones.