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Care Givers

Be a taker (for a change).

When you care for a loved one disabled by illness, the focus is on giving. Giving your time, effort and attention to meet another's needs. Giving up your own pursuits and pleasures, freedom and friends, maybe school and career. As a caregiver, you're an unsung hero – but you're also human. It's essential to take a break, accept help and make time to meet your own needs. Taking a little time out from caregiving replenishes your body, mind and soul to fulfill an incredibly demanding role. Here are 14 self-care suggestions.

1. Take a quick break.

Take a five-minute respite, suggests Brenda Avadian, director of The Caregiver's Voice. If you're thinking, "How can I take a respite? I'm so overwhelmed," that's all the more reason to do so, she says. "If you're ready to lose it, it's best to just step aside. Take a breath, have a quick change of pace and return." Avadian, whose group focuses on people caring for loved ones with dementia, says short respites aren't a luxury – they're critical.

2. Invite others in.

Often, it's difficult for people who have taken on the role of caregiver to receive support, much less ask for it, says Avadian, a U.S. News For Better contributor. Invite neighbors and friends to step in and join you, she suggests. ("You bring the movie; I'll make the popcorn.") Let others know that a couple hours of their company and conversation would really help.

3. Carve out down time.

Lavita Lawrence, 73, of Pittsburg, California, took care of her mother for 10 years. In April, Reatha Lawrence died at 93 of Alzheimer's disease. "You just put your stuff on hold," says Lawrence, whose caregiving day started at breakfast and ended well past dinner. "Vigilance – you carry it in your head," she says. "My mother couldn't communicate verbally. You wonder if she's uncomfortable, even if you take a walk for just a few minutes." Instead, Lawrence would read in the evening. That way, she didn't have to leave her mother unattended.

4. Turn to friends.

"The biggest thing my friends could do was just be with my mother when I was away," Lawrence says. If she planned to be gone more than three hours, it meant her mother needed a meal prepared and help with feeding. Potential for choking was a concern, so it had to be a trusted friend who was familiar and comfortable with this responsibility.

5. Consider adult day care.

Your loved one might benefit from a full- or half-day session of adult day care, Avadian suggests. Adult day services offer stimulation and a change of pace for the recipient and caregiver. In-home care is another option. Using a professional caregiver for just a few hours allows the family caregiver to "untether" him or herself for a few precious hours, she says. Take advantage of that rare free time however you choose – even if it's just to go shopping.

6. Squeeze in exercise.

With respite care, Lawrence was able to head to the pool and enjoy aqua aerobics. That helped offset weight gain from forced inactivity and occasional unhealthy snacking. Lawrence also tried Zumba, but running and jumping made her knees swell. Many caregivers contend with chronic conditions of their own, like arthritis.

7. Revel in nature.

Even if you can't get away, nature's restorative power is as close as your backyard or balcony. As a caregiver, Lawrence enjoyed spending time with her small garden of succulent-filled flower pots, which she could transplant, rearrange and simply sit with.

8. Listen to the music.

"Music was good because my mom was a devout church lady," Lawrence says. Her brothers, who lived at a distance, often sent DVDs of gospel music for their mother and sister to enjoy together.

9. Calm your mind.

For Lawrence, going to church was an opportunity to replenish herself through quiet mediation. That, she said, was her oasis. "Everything is in divine order, as it should be," she says.

10. Resist isolation.

Family caregiving doesn't come with a menu, road map or college course, says Dr. Nestor Praderio, a psychiatrist in Corpus Christi, Texas. "[Caregiving] is very much oriented by love and dedication," says Praderio, also president of Face to Face, a nonprofit that helps those caring for individuals with dementia. "If the caregiver doesn't provide from themselves, they cannot provide the proper services. Get some rest. Share with your family. Integrate the generations of your family into the process. Don't isolate yourself – that will lead to an acute depression. You will be losing ground."

11. Join a festival.

Every August, Face to Face holds a local festival for family and friends of people with dementia. It's a day of education and activities, Praderio says. Panelists, including attorneys, are available to answer questions about legal issues, guardianships and power of attorney. There's also a patient area where caregivers can bring the people they care for a bit of respite. "At the end of the festival every year, we have a huge band of music," he says. "Therefore, we have dancing for two or three hours. It's wonderful."

12. Find support.

Help is available. One source is the Family Caregiver Alliance. "FCA services are designed to help caregivers provide the best possible care to their loved ones while focusing on their own well-being," says Jo McCord, a family consultant. FCA offers information and referrals to local community programs and services and provides family consultations to help caregivers with long-term care planning. Other services may include legal consultations, respite assistance and counseling. For young caregivers, the American Association of Caregiving Youth website lets kids connect to peers and provides a comprehensive list of caregiver resources. The National Council on Aging offers information for older adults and caregivers.

13. Share your story.

Children and teens are often invisible members of the caregiver community. Some are high-school or even middle-school students, says Connie Siskowski, former youth caregiver and president and founder of the American Association of Caregiving Youth. It may help students to talk to a trusted teacher, guidance counselor or school nurse to explain why they're having trouble, Siskowski says: "You can't keep up with your homework because you were up all night caring for your grandma."

14. Give yourself credit.

Caregiving is a tough job. Know you're doing the best you can. As Siskowski says, "You're really a hidden hero."

Written by Lisa Esposito, US News Health / For Better