Healthy Choices for Caregivers

By David Novak

Caring for a loved one with an illness — like cancer, dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease– is not easy.  It takes strength, patience and love.  When caring for a loved one, your health and wellness may often take a backseat.  As a caregiver, all your time and energy is devoted to nurturing your friend or family member. You grab fast food at a drive-through or skip meals entirely to stay by his or her side.  You let your exercise program go.  And because a caregiver role can be extremely mentally fatiguing, your mental health can be at stake as well.

As a caregiver, it’s critical you stay healthy so you can better care for your loved one.   According to experts, making small changes in your physical, mental and dietary health can lead to significant improvement in your ability to effectively care for a loved one.

Try these suggestions to maintain good health:

Exercise and Stay Social

More than anything, you as a caregiver have a tremendous responsibility for the care of your patient.  And more than ever, it’s important for you to take care of yourself first.  Can you really take care of someone else with a disability when you’re not healthy and fit yourself?  The answer is:  Probably not.  And sure, this is sometimes difficult and easier said than done, but by maintaining good physical and mental health, you are helping yourself and your loved one at the same time.

Try to get some physical exercise in every day, even if it’s a 10-minute walk. Research suggests fitness and activity facilitates a better mental attitude, and equips you with dealing with stress that comes along with being a caregiver. Whenever possible get your sleep, take breaks, make and keep social activities and try to keep your sense of humor as well.

Good Mental Health

Having friendly communication and a healthy relationship with your loved one can be tremendously rewarding. As any illness progresses, family roles can change. A head-of-household, for example, may no longer be able to sustain that role, and may rely on the caregiver to assume that role. Studies suggest that caregivers with a high quality relationship with their patients have better physical health and reduced depression.

Also, If you try to care for someone by yourself, and without any external help, this is a recipe for disaster.  It’s simply too much stress and work to accomplish on your own. So get the help you need. By doing so, you will feel less isolated and more attached to the outside world. This is important.

Receiving outside help lowers your stress and gives you frequent breaks, which you need. You can find help through support groups.  Joining a support group to help you meet people who are going through what you are going through, vent frustrations, give and receive mutual support, and exchange resource information and coping strategies is vital to your mental health.

Additionally, there are community sanctioned services available, and if those aren’t available, friends, senior centers, adult health facilities churches and organizations like Meals on Wheels are there to help you as well.  A social worker from your insurance provider can connect you with other services. There are also fee-based services available, which can help with cooking meals, dressing and bathing.

Know about What You’re Dealing With

There are plenty of educational resources available to you so you can learn all there is to know about the disease your loved one is afflicted with. Both online resources and your local library are available at your disposal.  Other resources include your loved one’s doctor. It’s a great idea to accompany that person to their doctor’s appointments and ask the doctor questions so you are thoroughly schooled on the disease.

Primary to a caregiver’s education is to assess both yours and the loved one’s needs. These can include topics such as the home environment, both of your emotional states and your own health. As a caregiver, you need to figure out how much you can do alone, and what outside support is required. This can include financial concerns such as expenses, employment for both parties, legal matters, (such as Power-of-Attorney) and insurance.

Knowing what you’re dealing with, and being educated on all facets of the disease and the care for the disease will dramatically reduce your stress levels.  You won’t be guessing what to do anymore.  Ambiguity is a sure stresser, but having the knowledge about the disease, your patient and the right steps to take as a caregiver can reduce your stress 10-fold.

healthy choices

A Good Diet

As a caregiver, fitting in three squares a day can be challenging. But, you miss out on vital nutrients when you skip meals, so eat healthy foods every few hours. Your body needs food every five to six hours to function properly. Eating healthy foods at regular intervals refuels your body, and helps keep your blood sugar and metabolism at healthy levels.

If you can’t eat a meal every five to six hours, a healthy snack is the next best thing.  Intermittent snacks are actually great for your metabolism, and the best kinds are those with unrefined carbohydrates, like whole grains and fruit, as well as protein, like low-fat cheese or peanut butter.  Simple carbs and protein will help you stay energized.

Whole grains in particular are great because they have a lot of fiber.  Additionally, a diet rich in whole grains may help curb your risk of colon disease.  In addition to the usual whole grain suspects like rice and bread, other foods like popcorn, oatmeal and quinoa are good alternatives, rich in real whole grains.

Limit red meat and avoid processed meats as well. Studies shows that eating too much red meat can increase your risk of colon cancer. Beef, lamb and pork, including hamburgers, are all red meat.  Rather, eat more fish and chicken, add dairy as a protein or try plant proteins. In addition to limiting red meat, it’s important to avoid processed meats like pepperoni, hot dogs, bacon and sausage. Processed meats are preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or they have added chemical preservatives. Eating these meats can raise your risk for disease.

Finally, drink a ton of water. Many drinks, like soda and juices, have a lot of sugar and calories. Drinking too many can add up to unwanted weight gain overtime. And, an unhealthy weight puts you at risk for diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Water has no calories. It also helps you stay full longer so you eat less and maintain a healthy weight.

A Thought-Out Plan

Caring for a loved one is tough. Caregivers need to assess the way their loved one is cared for, along with how the added stress of the disease is playing into your own life.  Both you and your patient need to make changes to your daily routines to manage the disease together.  With a thought-out plan and taking advantage of available resources and free services like Lotsa Helping Hands, you can make both yours and your loved one’s lives both healthy, pleasant and enjoyable.

David Novak is a international syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV around the world. His byline has appeared in GQ, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, among others, and he has appeared on The Today Show, the CBS Morning Show and Paul Harvey Radio. David is a specialist at consumer technology, health and fitness, and he also owns a PR firm and a consulting company where he and his staff focus on these industries. He is a regular contributing editor for Healthline. For more information, visit