Busy Parents and Caregivers Must Care for Themselves

Daughter comforting mother

In a website survey, 12 percent of visitors to heart.org said that they were too busy taking care of others to take care of themselves. But, if you’re a busy mom or dad or the caregiver of a cardiac patient, caring for yourself is just as important as caring for your loved one(s).

Achieving balance can be the hardest part.

“This is especially so in the event of a sudden cardiac event,” said Barry Jacobs, clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa. “As that person recovers and begins cardiac rehab, family members should begin to turn back to their other family duties. Feeling comfortable doing so — knowing when the emergency is passed — is often a challenge.”

Parents are caregivers.

With a cardiac emergency, it’s easy to see how caregivers come into play. But those who provide day-to-day care for their families are also caregivers. Busy parents may overlook healthy eating and exercise, opting for convenience and processed foods. Over time, the poor nutritional value and excess sodium and added sugars of these foods can have serious health implications for your kids.

  1. Learning Heart Health. Jacobs said he urges all Americans to be “food literate” so they know the nutritional value of what they’re serving and make informed choices. This involves, in part, learning to read and understand nutrition labels and ingredients. “You can take satisfaction in broadening your palate and discovering new foods that are also satisfying.
  2. Teaching Heart Health. “When children become accustomed to eating foods that are high in salt and added sugars, there is the danger that they will develop lifetime taste preferences that lead to poor diets and poor health,” Jacobs said. “Parents in two-income families and single parents are often hard-pressed for time to prepare nutritious meals.  But there are many resources to teach them to prepare foods that are convenient to make and are lower in salt and sugars.”
  3. Developing Heart Health. Developing better eating habits is often a step-by-step exploration of new foods and recipes. Jacobs suggests gradually introducing healthier foods and drinks, making sure your choices taste good and are good for the whole family.
  4. Modeling Heart Health. It’s up to you to model the eating habits you want to see in your kids. Your kids’ diet may be heavy on the potato chips and light on the veggies, but leading by example is the best teacher. Start small by picking one battle. If your kids guzzle soda, limit to a very small amount each week and gradually limit altogether or keep as a treat for a special occasion.

Small steps can go a long way.

Finding time to fit in physical fitness should also be a priority. Getting as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

All in all, taking care of yourself and a loved one can be challenging, but rewarding.

Advice for Cardiac Caregivers

Patient caretakers who focus solely on themselves may let others down, while those who just concentrate on others’ needs may become self-neglectful. Learn more about your rights as a caregiver.
Setting aside your own needs to focus on your loved one's needs is understandable. “That’s a normal and expected reaction in the short-term when the shock of the cardiac event is still fresh,” said Jacobs, an American Heart Association volunteer. “However, it is not a good strategy for caregiving over the weeks and months of recovery.  It’s not good for you — or your loved one.”

His advice: Pace yourself to conserve your energy.

“That means balancing taking care of your loved one with taking care of yourself,” Jacobs said. “Neglecting your needs may lead you to burn out, meaning you won’t be able provide the kind of loving care over the long haul that you intend.”

There are several steps for preparing to take care of a loved one after a cardiac event, Jacobs said. 

  1. Learn about the nature of the heart problem or cardiovascular condition, its treatments and a timeline for recovery.
  2. Reality check. Realistically appraise what you can do for your loved one but also begin reflecting on what might be too much for you over time, e.g., staying home from work.
  3. Start assembling a support team to help with caregiving duties like meal preparation, driving and household chores.
  4. Reach out. Find someone you can talk to about your fears and doubts. Make sure this confidante can give you reassurance and emotional support.

“People often grow personally and spiritually through the process of caregiving. They learn about their own resilience, competence and capacity for self-sacrifice,” Jacobs said. “And they discover anew what it means to be a loving family member.”