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Caregivers: Care for others — but don't forget about you

Published: Monday, March 10, 2014 3:33 p.m. CDT

Doctors for USA WEEKEND

It's a noble job — taking care of an aging parent, chronically ill spouse or disabled family member. And more than 65 million Americans are serving as caregivers for loved ones, preparing meals, taking over household duties, managing doctor appointments and medications, and in some cases providing full-time assistance.

As rewarding as the role can be, caregiving is also tough, in many ways relentless, and often physically and emotionally draining. Surveys have shown that more than half of caregivers feel overwhelmed; they also report higher levels of stress than the average person, according to the American Psychological Association. But to care for others effectively, you have to look after your own well-being too. Some strategies to help keep you happy and healthy:

Recognize the warning signs of stress.

If you're irritable or exhausted most of the time, have trouble sleeping, are more forgetful or lose interest in activities you used to like, it could indicate you're under too much stress, which over time can harm your health. If you have a history of depression, pay even closer attention to the red flags — a new, small study suggests that caregiving itself doesn't necessarily cause depression but may raise the risk for those who have a vulnerability toward it.

Change the things you can.

Identify your sources of stress. Maybe you're trying to do too much; perhaps there are family disagreements or financial worries. Focus on matters over which you have control and then take a small step toward a solution, the Family Caregiver Alliance suggests. Even meeting a friend for coffee once a week or calling a financial planner can help alleviate some anxiety and stress.

Accept help.

According to some estimates, nearly one in five caregivers provides more than 40 hours of care per week. A friend could pick up groceries or run an errand; someone else could freeze some extra meals for you or even take the person you care for on a short walk a few days a week.

Seek support.

Maintaining a strong support system is key to managing the stress of caregiving, experts at the Mayo Clinic say. Set aside time each week to connect with family or friends, and consider joining a support group, which can be a good source for encouragement and advice from others in similar situations.

See your doctor.

Studies have shown caregivers are more likely to have a chronic illness, and rate their health as fair or poor. As impossible as it may feel to find the time, it's important to see your physician for checkups and screenings. Tell him you're a caregiver, and mention any health concerns or symptoms you have.

The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon, health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels and psychologist Wendy Walsh. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.

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