How to look after yourself when you’re also a carer at home


The demands of caring for someone else can sometimes feel relentless, affecting your physical, emotional and mental health. Being a carer means you are looking after someone who is elderly, or has a disability, mental illness, dementia, chronic or terminal illness, or experiencing a drug or alcohol problem.

There are more than 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia, and two-thirds of them are female.

The task of being a carer is especially tough for women in the ‘sandwich generation’ – which means they are caring for both children and elderly parents, often while also working. While some carers say working gives them a break from caring, as well as providing an opportunity to socialise and make money, in the long term the stress of doing both can increase the likelihood of illness and lead to burnout (where you’re physically and emotionally exhausted from prolonged stress). That’s why managing your time and your wellbeing is very important.

Looking after you

Research indicates that the stress of caring for others can suppress immune function. To boost your resistance to illness, try to eat plenty of nutrient-rich foods, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and, where possible, participate in activities you enjoy. Reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and illicit drugs, which can worsen stress and adversely affect your mood. Having strong social networks is also an effective stress buster, so plan to spend some time each week with supportive people. And don’t be afraid to blow off some steam with family and friends from time to time – sharing how you feel can help lighten the emotional load.

Many carers say they wish their families would help out more. If no-one is offering to help you, ask for it. Learning to be assertive about your needs can help you share the load with others (you might like to see a psychologist or counsellor for assistance).

When family or friends do offer help, accept it. Have on hand a list of small tasks, like shopping or cooking, that can help you specify what you need.

Developing relaxation techniques is also important. This could include reading a book, having a bath, meditating, doing yoga or going for a walk – whatever works for you. Mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – which help people notice and reframe negative thoughts and feelings – can both be useful ways for time-poor carers to recharge and take care of their wellbeing. There are several reputable online services available to help you develop these skills.


Time management

Caring for someone can take up a lot of your time, especially if you are also working, but managing your time well can reduce stress and help you get some balance in your life. Some ways to do this include:

  • Setting realistic goals and planning how you can achieve them (it may be helpful to break them into smaller chunks). Your goals could include a weekly social catch-up with friends or family, exercising regularly, or organising weekly or monthly respite care.
  • Prioritising what is most important to achieve, remembering to remain flexible
  • Writing down important dates and appointments in a notebook, calendar or wall planner
  • Taking regular breaks
  • Accepting what you can change and what you can’t – which helps alter your response to stress.


Getting help

Many carers feel alone and unsupported. This may be because they see themselves not as a carer but as a family member looking after a loved one, meaning they might not think to seek out help for themselves. Joining a support group for carers can give you a chance to air your frustrations and gather helpful tips. Talking to a psychologist or counsellor can help you change your perception of caring and develop strategies around asking for help and setting boundaries.

Carers Australia provides counselling and advice – click here to find out more, or phone 1800 242 636.


Talking to your manager

You don’t have to share your personal circumstances with your manager, but it may be a good idea if caring is impacting on your work – for example, making you late or so tired that the quality of your work is being affected. You could talk to your manager about flexible working conditions (like different hours, or working from home sometimes), or just ask for their support. Make sure you have some solutions ready before having this conversation. Remember that you don’t have to go into detail about the person you care for, nor about their medical condition.

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