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As I slide into my office chair to settle in to write my morning’s cup of coffee rests on the corner of my desk within easy reach. My cup, at the moment, is full and reminds me of a caregiver’s daily turmoil. While I begin my writing day with a full cup of steaming coffee, a caregiver will often begin their own work with a full cup of boundless energy and enthusiasm to help and/or support another person. In both our cases, however, our cups may be emptied soon enough.

When this occurs, it will be easy enough for me to go pour myself another coffee; however, caregivers can find filling up their own cups far more difficult. Caregivers can often drain their own cups dry, overlook the issue of their own self-care, and fail to recognize how caring for an aging loved one requires caring for themselves in the process. Why this occurs is quite simple – when you focus completely on looking out, there is no time (or seemingly any reason) to look in. When you spend between 20 – 30 hours per week completely focusing on Mom or Dad’s needs, it’s very easy to ignore yourself in the process … you may feel that your parent is your primary responsibility, ignore the vital time-balancing act required as a caregiver (so as to include time for self-care), and/or even question your own worth.

When previously caring for both of my parents, I quickly fell into this trap. Despite sharing the caregiving responsibilities with my two sisters, my days were consumed with a heavy emphasis on my mother and father’s needs. Caregiving involved my running from dawn until dusk and I would be routinely required to be on-hand to drive Mom or Dad to a doctor’s appointment or handle any number of other obligations. I remember these obligations as being ever-increasing as Mom and Dad declined both physically and mentally. Even when I was not personally with them, I worried about Mom and Dad regularly – so much so that I often had difficulty sleeping.

Whether you are suffering from insomnia or running non-stop, caregiving can lead to personal and professional burnout. We are, after all, human and have our limitations as to what we can accomplish. Mind you, this often doesn’t stop us from trying to squeeze in even more to each of our days. Rest and relaxation are vital to help you remain health and recharge. To protect yourself, remember to step back and allow some time for just you.

Healthcare professionals refer to this as respite … whether you use this term or simply call it “taking a break”, remember that caregiving involves a minimum of two people: the care recipient and the caregiver. A caregiver must recognize the size and capacity of his/her own cup, accept his/her own limitations (no matter how much you want to help at this time and feel you can, there is only so much that you can realistically accomplish …) and consider his/her own needs. With proper rest, exercise, a healthy diet, social time with friends, and so on, a caregiver can become far more effective and even more enjoy his/her own caregiving work.

The best caregiving breaks are taken regularly. If, like me, you are prone to distractions, write yourself a note in your calendar, book respite time in Outlook on your computer. Or schedule regular reminders with Siri on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Back in my own caregiving days (and still so, in fact …) I found that taking long walks helped me immensely; however, even shorter 15-minute breaks taken on a regular basis can prove to be greatly beneficial. One very simple relaxation exercise is to breathe – inhale deeply through your nose, hold your breath for a moment, and then exhale through your mouth. Take 30 – 60 seconds to practice deep breathing at any time – while you are waiting at a traffic light on route to pick up Mom or Dad or just before turning in to sleep at night.

It’s important to note here that it isn’t always easy to practice caregiver self-care. You may fight tooth and nail against doing so and believe that you do not have the time to do so. Such resistance is common amongst caregivers. By making a concerted effort to take respite and practice self-care, you (along with your aging loved one) will benefit.

Now, I have just enjoyed my last swallow of coffee and topped up my cup … isn’t it time for you to top up your own caregiving cup as well?