Exercise? But I'm a Family Caregiver!
Family caregivers are some of the busiest people around! These people who provide care for elderly or disabled relatives spend hours making sure their loved one is safe and well-cared for, often juggling work and other family responsibilities. Extra time to spend on their own needs is a scarce commodity.
Yet if you are a caregiver, finding time to take care of yourself is vital for protecting both your own health and your ability to provide the best care for your loved one. It's important to follow your own health regimen, including regular healthcare appointments, a nutritious diet, adequate sleep and exercise.
The last item on that list unfortunately falls by the wayside for many caregivers. "Exercise? When would I?" asked one caregiver spouse whose husband is in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. "I can't leave my husband alone and finances are tight. And I'm too tired to exercise anyway."
Remember: Exercise creates energy rather than depleting it! If you are providing care support for a loved one with a long-term chronic illness, this is no time to turn into a couch potato. Here are some tried and true suggestions for including physical activity in your weekly schedule:
Make exercise a caregiving priority. Maybe you consider taking a bike ride, going to the gym or walking with friends to be self-indulgent? It's not! Exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, even Alzheimer's disease. By protecting your health, a regular exercise routine helps make you a more effective caregiver. Begin by discussing an exercise "prescription" at your next doctor visit. Put exercise in your "must do" rather than your "nice to do" list.
Get help. Respite care is essential for family caregivers. Respite means temporary care for a person that allows the person's regular caregiver to have rest and personal time. Family and friends often want to help, but they may not know what you need. Ask them to visit with your loved one while you go to the gym or a pool workout. If you feel hesitant to ask for help for this purpose, share that your doctor has "prescribed" exercise for you! In addition, look into professional assistance, such as an adult day center or in-home care.
Try home exercise. During times when getting out of the house is difficult, you can work out at home. Stanford University researcher Cynthia M. Castro, Ph.D., led a study demonstrating the effectiveness of a home-based exercise program for caregivers. Castro said, "This kind of approach has a lot to offer. It's convenient, it fits with their schedule and it doesn't require them to leave home." Ask your doctor for a set of exercises, or try an exercise DVD. If it is feasible, set up a modest home gym with weights and other equipment.
Exercise with your loved one. If the person you are caring for is able to get out for a walk or do an exercise DVD with you, this could be a way for you both to reap the benefits of physical activity. Does your loved one use a motorized scooter or wheelchair? Learn about accessible trails and paths in your area and plan walk/rides the two of you can do together. Some caregivers report that pushing their loved one's manual wheelchair provides a good workout for them and pleasant diversion for their loved one. Be sure to use good body mechanics when pushing a wheelchair. And if your loved one has Alzheimer's disease or other dementia, ask the healthcare provider for suggestions about exercises that are best-suited to your loved one’s needs.
Look into low-cost workout options. Finances can be tight for families who are supporting an older loved one. Expensive exercise equipment or a gym membership may be some of the first items on their budget chopping block. The National Institute on Aging suggests checking out low-cost exercise activities, such as mall walking and free activities offered at your local community center, or going for a hike near your home.
Combine exercise and socializing. It's great to get out of the house and spend some "alone time," but enjoying time with friends is also nourishing for family caregivers. Invite a friend to work out with you or go for a walk. If you participate in a support group for families who are dealing with similar challenges as yours, suggest a "walking support group meeting," which provides simultaneous physical and emotional benefit.
One final suggestion that can help anyone stick to an exercise routine: Select activities that you enjoy. If exercise seems like a chore, you are much less likely to sustain your activity plan. Walking, dancing and exercising to music all provide a good workout. Or watch your favorite TV programs while working out on a treadmill or stationary bike. Ending your workout with a feeling of accomplishment is great — but adding a sense of self-indulgence doesn't hurt, either. You're a family caregiver and you've earned it!
The Go4Life online exercise website from the National Institute on Aging offers resources to help seniors and caregivers fit exercise and physical activity into their daily lives. You can also read the online brochure, "Be Physically Active Without Spending a Dime," to find more low-cost exercise ideas. Start by ordering a free exercise DVD.