The recent coronavirus global pandemic has disrupted daily life at levels unprecedented in our lifetime. Yet life disruption is something family caregivers understand all too well. According to a study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), more than 34 million Americans are caring for someone over age 50: a spouse or partner, an older parent or in-law, a sibling, a beloved older family member or even a friend. Many caregivers begin their journey in a crisis event when a loved one receives a devastating diagnosis, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease, that causes physical or cognitive limitations to independent daily living.
While most caregivers embrace their role willingly and lovingly, it means they may be sacrificing much needed time for self-care. These sacrifices can add up over time since most caregivers spend on average 4 years and 80-160 hours a month in their caregiving role. For those caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, the journey can be twice as long and comes with additional stress.
One study analyzed data among dementia caregivers, ages 55-75, and showed they report 23% higher levels of stress hormones, 15% poorer production of antibodies to fight infections and support immunity and 2-3 times higher levels of depression. The physical and emotional toll of caregiving can result in poorer health for the caregivers. A study from the Commonwealth Fund found caregivers reported chronic conditions at nearly twice the rate of non-caregivers (45% vs. 24%).
Creating a routine brings calm to caregivers
Trying to find calm during the chaos of caregiving can be difficult but not impossible. One solution comes from the world of gerontology that focuses on the balance between the biological, psychological and social aspects of one’s life as a framework for determining longer health and longevity. A tool that cognitive behavioral therapists and psychologists use and is proven to be highly effective is the establishment of routine.
It may seem counterintuitive since most caregivers have their daily routines turned upside down when caring for a loved one. This disruption gives caregivers a sense of losing control. When coupled with the inability to control the disease or disability afflicting loved ones, caregivers can quickly feel overwhelmed with increased anxiety and chronic stress.
This psychological state is called loss of locus of control and has two avenues: internal locus of control and external locus of control. Caregivers cannot gain external locus of control over the situation or disease, but they can increase internal locus of control, which is the response they have to these situations. Creating a new routine is part of reestablishing internal locus of control.
The Monday effect
Routines can help caregivers cope with change, focus on healthy habits, and reduce stress. They also help bring balance back into a caregiver’s life. One program based on establishing a healthy weekly routine is Caregiver Monday, part of The Monday Campaigns nonprofit public health initiative.
Dedicated to self-care practices and promotion, Caregiver Monday focuses on physical, emotional and social health behavioral change by helping caregivers commit to weekly efforts. Monday offers a natural refresh point since it is embedded in our cultural DNA. It is the start of the work week, the start of the school week, so it flows that caregivers can embrace Monday as the start and sustainable effort towards improved self-care.
In fact, a 2019 survey of 1,000 adult Americans conducted by Data Decisions Group for The Monday Campaigns found 64% of respondents said if they start with a positive frame of mind on Monday, they are more likely to stay positive for the rest of the week. Also, those surveyed reported they were more likely to start exercise routines, eat healthier and schedule doctor’s appointments on Mondays.
Three ideas to start a Caregiver Monday routine
Rather than the Monday blues, caregivers can turn Monday into their personal “Fun Day.” Caregivers can claim Monday as their own for the weekly routine to focus on themselves. Some ideas for making Monday work:
- Follow Caregiver Monday on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for ideas every week on finding self-care practices. Engage with the caregiving community on these social sites to feel less alone. It is emotionally empowering to share Monday posts on successes and tips and feel the support from strangers who know exactly what you are going through.
- Ask friends and family to help with respite care to get a self-care break. They can also send texts or social media posts to encourage your efforts. One study showed people were 20-25% more active and successful in their wellness efforts if their social networks and digital coaches were cheering them on.
- Despite the disruption and the distress, caregivers can use Monday to have some fun. Wear your favorite color on Mondays, get a humor calendar or app and check it every Monday for a good giggle, turn off the news and instead watch YouTube videos of baby animals (a scientific study actually showed this can have a positive effect on mood and productivity). Most importantly, thank yourself with little self-care activities and be grateful you can be there for your loved one every day.
Sherri Snelling is a corporate gerontologist and ambassador for the Caregiver Monday campaign. She specializes in caregiver wellness, psychosocial behavior modification and brain health/Alzheimer’s. She is founder of the Caregiving Club, a consulting and content creation company working with employers to encourage caregiver self-care in the workplace.