This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.

Caregivers are getting crunched. Those who must balance the needs of others with their own, plus manage family and work commitments often lead stressed, overwhelmed lives. They can suffer from compassion fatigue.

To meet the needs of caregivers dealing with stress, a program has been developed that provides self-care education, yoga and mindfulness meditation to help family and professional caregivers.

What is caregiving?

About 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the past 12 months, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.

The “sandwich generation” of caregivers is more prevalent than people realize, said project manager Margaret Swarbrick, director of practice innovation and wellness at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. These caregivers are doubly affected because they have to take care of an elderly or disabled relative while also taking care of a child.

“When you’re caring for someone you’re giving a lot of compassion. You’re doing it compassionately, but when offered constantly, it feels relentless. It can lead to burnout,” Swarbrick said.

Family members who care for others are at risk for increased stress, which can affect not only their health but the health of the person in their charge, Swarbrick said.

Caregiving requires emotional and physical strength, she said: “People often neglect their own health, focusing exclusively on the needs of those whom they support, which can lead to self-destructive patterns and social isolation.”

Practical advice

Swarbrick developed the Caregiver Wellness program, created through a collaboration between Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and Rutgers School of Health Professions, that takes a practical, not theoretical, approach. Caregivers learn hands-on how even a few minutes of simple yoga, meditation and breathing exercises during the day can reduce stress.

“People often feel that they can’t take a few minutes to themselves to unplug, to reset,” said Swarbrick, who likes to use the analogy of an airline passenger putting on an oxygen mask. “You put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others,” she said.

The program is offered near Rutgers in New Jersey, but the advice can be put into practice anywhere. Swarbrick’s biggest tip for caregivers: “Focus on your own needs.” Be aware of what you need to do to keep yourself healthy, inclduing nourishing yourself, moving your body and paying attention to your sleep habits.

Along with self-care techniques, practice mindfulness with yoga or meditation: Focus on your breathing when stressed. Yoga and meditation can help teach someone how to pause and roll with situations rather than react to them, which leads to more effective caregiving, Swarbrick said.

Even small things like closing your eyes for a few minutes can help calm nerves and reduce stress, Swarbrick said.

Instead of carrying the whole load on your own, share the responsibilities.

“Make sure you take time for yourself even if it’s just five to 10 minutes a day. Avoid trying to do it all yourself,” Swarbrick said.