Caregiving can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be emotionally and physically exhausting, financially taxing, and lonely. Whether you are caring for a parent, grandparent, spouse, or friend, getting enough sleep is probably low on your list of priorities. Remember that while taking care of your loved one, it is essential to take care of yourself, too.
As a caregiver, there is a lot that is out of your control. Following these tips can bring back some control into your life—and some precious, precious sleep.
You might feel alone, but the reality is that there are millions of caregivers in America—in fact, there are 40.4 million of them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Twenty-three percent are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The majority are taking care of their parents (44 percent) and over half have other jobs on top of this responsibility.
Truthfully, eldercare can be a full-time job depending on the state of the loved one; while some older folks need help running errands or taking care of their home, some need more intense care like bathing, dressing, and feeding. No matter what kind of care you are providing, it can be incredibly stressful providing physical, financial, or emotional support to your loved one. Because of this, many caregivers experience mental and physical health problems, which has been coined in the medical world as caregiver burden.
There is no disputing that caregiving can have a negative impact on rest. Time is limited for a caregiver, so naps and early bedtimes are not always an option. Plus, middle-of-the-night wakeups can continuously interrupt sleep, which can alter sleep patterns and limit the amount of time in deep sleep, the most restorative time of the night.
Patients with Alzheimer’s might experience something called “sundowning,” where they have more intense confusion during the night. Sometimes this can lead to awakenings all night long and strange behavior, meaning caregivers are always on duty.
While not all people with Alzheimer’s get sundown disorder, the stress of caretaking alone can make it impossible to fall asleep—of all 10 million caregivers of people with dementia, two-thirds have experienced sleep disturbances.
Sleep is a huge deal emotionally and physically, and more proof of this is uncovered as research is collected. Someone who experiences sleep deprivation can have difficulty focusing, causing confusion and a lowered reaction time. Missing that much needed deep, restorative sleep can also lead to emotional instability, and it may take longer for your body to restore physically.
Other side effects are weight gain and a compromised immune system. Long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. These effects can last a lifetime, long after your caregiving days are over.
Besides impacting yourself, sleep deprivation affects those around you, as well, especially the person you are caring for. Difficulty focusing and confusion can lead to on-the-job errors, such as forgetting to administer medicine or getting to important appointments. Driving while drowsy is one of the biggest factors of deadly motor accidents, so those in the car and on the road with you can be in danger.
Caregiving can get lonely, and no one should have to do it by themselves. Be sure to ask those around you for help. Close friends and family should be happy to assist regularly to give you a break—possibly one day a week or while getting errands done.
Getting some backup a few nights a week will help you get more rest knowing that your loved one is being taken care of.
To be the caregiver you want to be, you have to take care of yourself first. Setting boundaries and knowing how much is too much are essential to staying sane. Know when to delegate certain tasks to someone else and when you need some extra rest.
Things like haircuts, grocery shopping, or dentist appointments can be difficult to do as a caregiver. Ask someone to keep your loved one company while you take care of yourself and your family. If possible, take some time away every once in a while to clear your head — a vacation, even just a short one, can do wonders.
Because it is so taxing caring for another person, caregivers are limited to the time that they have. While a bedtime routine might have been the norm before, it may feel like more of a luxury now. Studies have shown, however, that following a regular bedtime routine helps you sleep better and longer.
It does not have to be long, but trying to go to sleep at the same time each night is key.
Here are some ideas to wind down and get ready for bed:
Caregiving can lead to sleep difficulties all on its own, so avoiding things that can make sleep even harder to come by is extra important. Using phones, tablets, and watching television close to bedtime can delay melatonin release, the hormone that helps you settle down and rest for the night. The blue light displays from these devices trick your brain into thinking that it is daytime, so it can take longer to fall asleep.
The best thing that you can do is put away this tech at least an hour before you plan on going to sleep. Blue-light-filtering glasses can reduce the effects that screens have on our melatonin levels, as well, so wearing those while using your phone during the day can make a huge difference.
Along the same lines as using tech, naps and caffeine might interfere with your rest too. Midday naps, particularly those that are taken late in the day, can deplete your urge to sleep in the evening. If you really need a nap, try taking one before the afternoon hits.
Caffeine can stick around in your body hours after consuming it, so even if it might feel like the effects have worn off, the stimulant can still linger. Caregivers often need to wake up during the night, so an afternoon coffee or energy drink might feel necessary, but try to avoid caffeine as much as possible. Drinking a morning cup of joe shouldn’t be an issue for most, but everyone responds to caffeine differently, so keep that in mind.
Make sure to watch out for your emotional health; family, friends, or professionals (like therapists, counselors, or advisors) can help you work out the difficulties of caregiving. There are also support groups both online and in-person where you can chat with people going through the same thing that you are.
Sometimes it is just nice to get your thoughts out, and you might not have someone around or don’t feel comfortable confiding in someone else. Keeping a journal is an amazing way to not only keep track of your memories but also serve as a form of therapy — writing out your thoughts might help you recognize and understand your feelings, and as a caregiver, the days can be emotional and complicated.
Chances are you need to relax more, and carving out some time in your day for yoga or meditation can be the answer. While they might not be for everyone, research shows that they can improve sleep. Plus, taking time to meditate can be a great way to unwind from the stressors of the day.
Consider enrolling in a class to ensure that you take the time for yourself. You might need a little external push to make it happen.
Looking for a healthy way to get more shuteye? Exercising is one of the most natural ways to do it. There is plenty of research that demonstrates the correlation between better rest and exercise.
Even just 15 minutes of exercise a day can make a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be anything too crazy, either—turn on a workout video or roll out the yoga mat while your loved one is taking a morning nap.
Try not to exercise too late in the day, as it could interfere with your ability to fall asleep. It can take some time for your heart rate to slow down, so a workout right before bed can sometimes be problematic. Plus, getting your blood flowing can be a great way to start your morning.
No one knows quite how much work it is to be a caregiver unless you have been one yourself, and it is no wonder a large percentage experience mental and physical health problems from putting their own needs on the backburner. Reaching out for help from friends and family, exercising, and taking a few moments for yourself are just a few small ways you can improve your situation.
Although it might feel strange to take care of yourself for a change, remember that it is essential to be the best caregiver you can be. Your loved one—and your body—will thank you for it!