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7 self-care hacks for caregivers who are tight on time

Oct. 9, 2018

Long, erratic hours, unreasonable demands, and the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that often results — sound familiar? According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, over half of senior caregivers work more than 40 hours per week, so it’s no wonder burnout can be an issue in the professional caregiving world.

For Lindsay Heller, a former nanny who now runs the consultancy the Nanny Doctor, it culminated in her crying uncontrollably in her car. She was driving the 45-minute commute to her job as a weekday, live-in nanny of several young children in California, including one with special needs, and broke down.

“I had a little bit of achievers’ syndrome, where I didn’t want to fail,” she says. “I would be up all night with multiple children and expected to be first one up in morning to prep everyone’s breakfast and then put everyone to bed at end of the day.”

Fortunately burnout is preventable and reversible, and it starts with grabbing that “oxygen mask,” to use the famous analogy, and putting yourself first so you can more adequately care for others. Recognize the signs of caregiver burnout early, and make self-care a priority with these tips from experts and caregivers.

1. Practice good “sleep hygiene”

Experts can’t emphasize enough the magical power of sleep for self-care — but caregivers obviously don’t always have the luxury of a 9:30 p.m. bedtime. So instead of focusing on the number of hours you get, focus on the quality of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “sleep hygiene” refers to simple practices that can help you get a healthy, restorative rest, regardless of the time spent in bed.

That means skipping that fourth cup of coffee two hours before bed (no matter how badly you need it), and resisting the urge to Instagram the Pretzel Skeleton project you did with the kids you care for. Light from screens are physiologically stimulating and disrupt your body’s natural sleep cycle.

Heller says her most effective sleep hygiene trick is using blackout window shades and a sleep mask.

“Once you start training yourself to have quality sleep, you can just put the sleep mask on and even sneak in a 20-minute nap when possible,” she says.

2. Don’t isolate yourself

Two summers ago, Maria Torres, a 32-year-old nanny caring for three children in Westchester County, New York, was working long, 12- to 15-day stretches, caring not only for her employers’ children but also their friends, who regularly came to swim and sleep over. The additional stress was giving her headaches and back pain. She stopped making time for friends, and she was getting snippy with everyone.

Heller says connecting regularly with friends, to unload frustrations and just have fun, is imperative. In-person groups or meetups are the best option, she says, and a great way to make new friends. But failing that, Heller suggests turning to social media. Her personal favorite, the Nanny Care Tribe, is completely anonymous. You can also search locally for groups in your area.

Torres says she eventually had a heated discussion with her boss — but things eventually got better, allowing more time for regular socializing, which has helped her find more balance.

“Every day I go to the gym and every day I try to see a friend,” Torres says. “Being foreign is hard, so my friends become like family. I need to see them or else I have a video call with my family in Mexico.”

3. Let the family see the real you

Giving up an hour of personal time to spend more time with your employer may seem counterintuitive to self-care. But safeguarding your personal needs and time depends largely on getting your employer to value them as much as you do. Sofia Reyes, 30, of Chappaqua, New York, who has been working as an au pair and nanny for five years, says to integrate yourself into the family as much and as soon as possible. She says she does that by having dinner with them regularly.

“It’s just one hour of my time that I can give them,” says Reyes. “But once you are integrated, it’s easier for them to respect your schedule and feel for you. You just can’t keep things separate if you live with them.”

After Reyes mentioned during a conversation that she loved playing ice hockey, her employer took the initiative and contacted area ice rinks. She found Reyes a team that didn’t conflict with work, which allowed her to continue the activity she loved.

4. Download some harmonious tunes

Listening to music helps us be present in the moment, freeing us from stress. But classical music in particular has been shown in numerous studies to have physiological aspects, such as lowering blood pressure, improving creativity, inducing sleep, not to mention physically reducing stress hormones.

Of course, only you can decide what type of music works best for your particular mood. While songs described as peaceful, serene, sad, and joyful show the best results in research, your favorite punk rock or country tracks may do the trick for you. You could even give nature sounds a try, or check out Weightless — the “most relaxing song in the world.”


5. Get your creativity on

Devising fun games and activities for children is part of a child care provider’s repertoire, but don’t forget to nurture your own creative expression as a form of self-care. You’ve likely heard about the popularity of adult coloring books as a way to relieve stress, but creativity can take on lots of surprising forms.

Susanne West, professor of psychology and author of Soul Care for Caregivers, holds workshops to help caregivers find the ideal creative activity for them.

“For many people, a creative practice can serve the same function as meditation,” she says. “It gets people out of their heads and opens them to their imagination, releasing positive brain chemicals. So much of our suffering comes from identifying with the thinking mind and all the worrying, etc. Being creative helps people become present.”

West suggests thinking back to when you were 5 or even 10 years old: What gave you the most joy as a child? It doesn’t have to be sculpture or classical painting. One of her clients rediscovered stenciling, and another became a master closet organizer in her limited free time.

“Take 10 minutes a day or just a couple of five-minute breaks to do this thing — whatever it is — it does not demand long blocks of time at all,” she says.

6. Move around

Ask any caregiver what their biggest stress reliever is and many will answer: working out. Whether it’s running, yoga or weights at the gym, exercise is a total mind-body-soul healer. But what if you can’t make it a daily habit, or even a weekly one?

“Taking the children for walks in the park, playing a sport, going to places with nature, like rivers and beaches, can be incredibly healing for both caregivers and their charges,” says Shahida Arabi, the author of three books on self-care.

On days you have to stay indoors, you can still schedule interactive physical activities, like dancing, scavenger hunts and indoor fitness set to fun music. Or plan a day of yoga, which is great for kids, too.

7. Know your deal-breakers

Marly Higgins Driskell, of Houston, Texas, a professional nanny for 23 years and 2015 International Nanny Association Nanny of the Year, was working more than 60 hours a week for a family. The relationship with the parents soured and she knew she had to leave, but she became anxious (and gained 40 pounds) about ending it and the prospect of not being able to see the boys again. She did eventually quit, and while she was scared she’d never get another position, she says she quickly landed a new job.

Her lesson: Speak up and give it time to improve — but if it doesn’t, be prepared to act.

“When you’re no longer happy at work, it’s time to walk away,” says Driskell, who now works exclusively with newborns as a master newborn care specialist. “You have to say, ‘I can’t be here anymore’ if it starts killing your soul.”

Heller said she wished she had recognized the signs of burnout long before she eventually moved on.

“When you’re working for a private family, you’re caring for children you may have strong feelings for and feel committed to, over your own needs,” she says. “But it shouldn’t be that way. To be great at being a nanny, you have to take care of yourself first.”

Read next: Raising the voices of caregivers

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