Healthy Aging Column – Family Caregivers: Taking Care of Yourself

Family caregivers often believe that setting limits or communicating their own needs are not permissible, or they may be fearful of the response of others. If you feel this way, ask yourself if there is courage and nobility in saying nothing, resenting it and burning yourself out.  Or is it better to take care of yourself so you can be a caring helper to your loved ones?

Four essential caregiver’s tools to get to the second option are setting limits, asking for help, expressing or responding to criticism and expressing anger. If caregivers choose to not use these tools, their health and even their own survival are at risk. All the characteristics that make a good caregiver – patience, decision-making, caring expressions, listening and physical abilities – become difficult to perform when the caregiver is stressed or burned out.  

Changing your behavior to let others know what you need will not feel good at first, but over time it will become easier. Here is what you need to do.

– Setting limits: Setting limits is the realization you cannot do everything, and the limits become your guide. Some family members will respond with relief that you have set limits while others will push the limits to maintain their own wants and needs.

Imagine the effect your failing health would have on the person you are caring for and your own life. Ask yourself these questions: What would be the worst outcome? What are the consequences if I do nothing? What is the best thing that could happen? What has been your past behavior in setting limits?

Determine which limits are non-negotiable and make them clearly understood. Start with people or situations that you think will be easier in your goal to set limits. Offer choices if possible and make no excuses.

– Asking for help: Asking for help enables you to provide continued care or increase the level of care the loved one needs. Prepare family members ahead of time for your need to cut back. Consider the interests, needs, dislikes, likes and limitations of the person you’re asking for help. Caregiving tasks are easier for some people than others.

Prepare a list of tasks that need to be done and be prepared for refusal. If the person you asked for help has not responded, suggest they think about it and get back to you after they consider the request. A person who refused today may not refuse next week.  

– Expressing and receiving criticism: Usually this step comes with the most fear, risk and difficulty. How the criticism is given affects people more than the criticism itself. Understand why you are criticizing, put your message in a form they can learn from and avoid attacking personalities. Calmly state the needs of the loved one and your own needs. Use "I statements," phrase questions carefully to seek information and avoid sounding accusatory.

When you receive criticism, think about the merits of the statement, not how you feel. Step into the other person’s shoes and listen with respect and concern. Do not take unjust criticism to heart. Taking criticism from the person you’re caring for is difficult. You do not need to listen if it’s an ongoing theme. Interrupt them calmly, take a deep breath and suggest you talk later.  

– Expressing anger: Anger is a normal response to the loss of something or someone and is an underlying theme for frustration, impatience, resentment and withdrawal. A person feeling fearful, anxious and indecisive is expressing anger. When it is your own anger, use this four-step method: Determine what you are anxious or angry about. Ask what you can do about it. Come up with action steps. Keep you thoughts, words and feelings in the present, not in the past or future.

Another person’s anger is their responsibility, not yours. If you are the target of the anger, try using the criticism-response tools. Use "I" messages in a non-threatening manner while avoiding "you" messages. Speak in a normal tone of voice. Excuse yourself and leave the person alone, or suggest a later time to talk when everyone is less emotional.  

Humor can turn unfairness into nonsense; however, if they feel you’re making fun of them or the issue, their anger may increase. Try to change the subject after reflecting that you heard them.  

For more information on family caregiving, several resources are available by contacting the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in your county or area.

For more information on Healthy Aging, go to the CSU Cooperative Extension Web page at  and click on Info Online, select Consumer and Family and then Healthy Aging.  

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By Donna Liess, Weld County Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Science/Nutrition Education Program, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension