It’s easy to lose sight of yourself when you’re a caregiver to someone with cancer, says Allison Applebaum, a psychologist who directs the Caregivers Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Counseling Center. She gave us these ideas to help make being a caregiver a bit more manageable, whether you’re new to the role or have years of experience.
Set three self-care goals each week you can actually accomplish.
“When you take care of yourself, you are ensuring that you will be the best caregiver to your loved one while honoring your responsibility to yourself,” Dr. Applebaum says. Small, doable goals set you up for success. For example, instead of saying you’ll get more sleep, you might try getting ready for bed 15 minutes earlier each night. When you complete small goals, you get a burst of feel-good energy, which encourages you to keep going.
Challenge yourself to ask for help.
Whatever your need is, “it’s normal to feel uncomfortable asking for help,” says Dr. Applebaum. “It’s not something we’re taught to do.” We might think that reaching out for support makes us look incapable of managing the many tasks we’re juggling. But “asking for help is not an admission of failure,” she continues. “It’s incredibly courageous to acknowledge one’s own limitations, and if there’s ever a time to be asking for help, isn’t it now?”Asking for help is not an admission of failure.
Being a caregiver comes with a number of tasks: managing medications, cooking, handling paperwork, scheduling appointments, monitoring symptoms, and much more. Determining priorities will help you stay organized as you get used to the role. “You can’t do everything at once,” Dr. Applebaum says. “It’s about creating a list. What are the most important things for today, this week, this month?” Once you identify your priorities, you may be able to delegate some of your tasks.
Recognize that you won’t always have control.
Our brains can play tricks on us, especially when we want to feel a sense of control. You may think, If I take care of everything perfectly, Dad will be OK. Or you think, Something will go wrong the second I leave the hospital. These thoughts, though, are just that — thoughts. “This is something I hear a lot,” says Dr. Applebaum. Rather than trying to predict the future, she suggests, seek ways to make the most of the present moment and connect to what’s meaningful in your and your loved one’s life right now.
Use “Dr. Google” responsibly.
It’s tempting to do a quick web search of your loved one’s condition, symptoms, or treatment. But instead of giving you answers, doing so may just give you more anxiety. “We are all unique, and the information that’s online is not specific to your loved one,” Dr. Applebaum says. Instead, check in with his or her medical team to get information that you can rely on.
Your time as a caregiver might force some tough conversations. You may have to tell your siblings that you need extra help caring for your mom. Or you may have to ask your manager for flexible work arrangements. Consider these opportunities to practice being open with important people in your life. Keeping quiet can breed resentment, says Dr. Applebaum. “It’s really hard to do this work and to do it lovingly at all times,” she says. “When you realize you’re frustrated, it’s time to focus a bit more on self-care.”
Connect with something positive.
Caregiving comes with a multitude of challenges. But keeping your eyes open for good things — no matter how small they are — can tip the scales. Maybe this opportunity is giving you more time to connect with a loved one. Maybe it’s teaching you that you are much stronger than you thought you were. Maybe you’re recognizing that you have a caring network of friends. Even in the darkest moments, we can look for the light.
Read MSK’s Guide for Caregivers for more suggestions and support.