Every carer knows how easily the tasks involved in caring for a loved one can grow to fill the time available. It’s easy to see why. The people we care for are our nearest and dearest and we want them to be happy and comfortable; we don’t want to just give them their medication then disappear until the next task is due. But the downside to this is that we sometimes neglect ourselves. Caring takes up time, both in the practical aspects of being a carer and in the way it can dominate our thoughts. Fortunately, by recognising the impact caring has on us, we can take action. By nurturing ourselves for our own sakes, we can more effective carers too.
Why does caring have such a big impact on our lives?
The clue is in the name. Caring isn’t just doing; there’s an emotional aspect to it as well. This means that much of the hands-on caring we do comes with additional love and understanding. If the person we care for takes a long time over a meal, for example, we will remain at the table with them until they have finished. This is good for our relationship with them, and it’s the right thing to do, but it does eat into our spare time.
Caring can also dominate our thinking. Once we have, say, got our loved ones dressed for the day, our minds don’t switch off. The next item is breakfast or medication or contacting the doctor – we finish one task and even if we then sit down with a book or the TV, we’re watching the clock or listening out for the person we care for.
What areas of life are impacted by caring?
Caring impacts every area of our lives. Caring affects paid work, with many of us reducing our working hours. It can affect relationships within the family, as well as reducing our free time for meeting new people and nurturing friendships. It can be difficult to find time for hobbies and exercise, and to prioritise self-care.
This matters because while we are carers, we are real people too. We’re not just an extension of the person we care for. We deserve to spend time and energy on ourselves – not only does it do us good, but it enables us to be better carers.
Fortunately, it is possible to be caring carers while also looking after ourselves. But to do it, we need to be mindful of the signs of self-neglect and know how to get the right support.
How do we tell when caring has taken over? What does self-neglect look like?
When caring gets too much, some of us start to neglect ourselves. In extreme cases, self-neglect can mean not taking care of ourselves at all, not seeing the doctor or taking medicine if we’re ill, not washing or changing our clothes enough or neglecting our homes so they’re no longer safe.
Of course, we don’t reach extreme self-neglect overnight. In many cases, it will start small. We believe we don’t need new clothes when the highlight of the week is a trip to the hospital. We don’t cook our favourite food because we choose recipes that are easy for our loved ones to eat. These are both reasonable lines for carers to take, but if we don’t consciously put ourselves first, at least sometimes, we risk sliding down the slippery slope into self-neglect.
How to establish boundaries around caring
If we recognise that caring is adversely affecting our lives, it’s time to establish some boundaries. Remember that boundaries are a positive part of any healthy relationship. Some people find it helpful to think of them as fences rather than brick walls. Boundaries preserve and protect, but they don’t shut people out.
Boundaries establish what we will do and what we will not do. Many carers end up doing “everything” at home, in some cases helping our loved ones do things that they could do for themselves. Sometimes this is because we have defined ourselves as carers and we feel that, say, leaving someone to brush their own hair or serving a meal that isn’t homecooked is uncaring.
But it is important to base care on what is actually needed, rather than what we feel is needed. We’re not neglecting our loved ones by letting them do things for themselves – if anything, we’re empowering them! We’re not neglecting the family if we don’t cook every night – we can let someone else do it or batch cook some freezer meals.
One thing that is definitely needed is some time just for us to see friends, take exercise or pursue our hobbies.