When Terri Corcoran and her husband Vince were newlyweds, they not only lived together -- they worked together too, organizing scientific conferences and publishing an arts magazine.
But as they settled into married life, things changed dramatically for them. Vince had a genetic condition and became disabled. "He retired because of the illness and I stopped working to care for him," says Corcoran, 65, who lives in Falls Church, VA.
Corcoran took charge of Vince's medical and personal care. She made changes to their home to make it more accessible, took care of his hygiene, and helped him live as full a life as he could.
They were the most challenging years of her life, she says, but she got through them by learning to take care of herself. She stayed active, ate, and slept well, and found outside support.
Experts agree that your own health and well-being are essential to caring for your loved one. If you're sick and exhausted, it can be tough on everyone, says Marion Somers, PhD, author of Elder Care Made Easier. "Remember what they tell you on an airplane: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help those in your care."
Pencil in Personal Time
It's easy to fall into a routine of caring for your loved one 24/7. To avoid burnout, it's better to pace yourself.
Take breaks, even on busy days. "Just a few moments for yourself each day can make all the difference," Somers says. You could meditate, read, or soak in a bath.
Go out once a week. Meet friends. Stroll through the park. Join a book club. Mark it in your calendar and keep the appointment.
"I tried to go out almost every day," Corcoran says. When Vince's home health aide arrived, Corcoran went shopping, had lunch with friends, or saw her grandchildren.
Exercise relieves stress and gives you energy. Try for 30 minutes on most days. Go for a brisk walk. Even 10-15 minutes here and there adds up.
Corcoran exercised and danced often. She had a large collection of fitness DVDs and at-home workout routines, which made it easier to exercise every day.
It gives you more energy, helps you stay healthy, and wards off depression. Try to eat heart-healthy foods. Limit saturated and trans fats, salt, and added sugars.
Your loved one may need a healthy diet too, so you can both work together to find ways to eat better. "I tried to improve my husband's and my own diet with suggestions from my daughter, who had a blog on healthy eating," she says.
When you're stressed, angry, or tense, try relaxation techniques like deep breathing. Inhale slowly and deeply. Hold it for a few seconds. Exhale slowly. Repeat 3-5 times.
Go ahead and giggle -- it's good for you. Laughter helps you relax and releases endorphins, or "feel-good" hormones. It speeds up your pulse, improves your blood flow, activates your muscles, and helps you get more oxygen. It may even improve your immune system, your body's defense against germs.
Laugh with your loved one and with friends. Watch a funny movie. Read a book that tickles your funny bone.
"Be realistic about what you can and cannot do," Somers says. "Don't be afraid to ask for help from others in your family or in your community. Hire help if you need to."
Keep Your Own Life on Track
Get organized. Take care of your finances, balance your checkbook, and plan for the future.
Take care of your health. Get regular checkups. See your dentist for cleanings. Go to the doctor when you're sick. Just as you wouldn't let your loved one miss an appointment, do the same for yourself.
Reach out to others to get the emotional backing you need. It will help you manage stress and feel less isolated.
"Look for caregiver support groups, which can often be found at local hospitals, community centers, or religious institutions," Somers says. "The magic of these groups is that everyone there is dealing with the same or similar problems, so you can expect to receive support, empathy, and often some very practical solutions and advice."
"I was -- and am still -- active in the Well Spouse Association," Corcoran says. She edits their newsletter, serves on the board of directors, and organizes monthly lunches for their local support group.
Try to stay connected to the rest of the world. Pick up the phone. Go online. Talk to friends, family, and neighbors about what's going on outside of your home.
"Remember -- you are not alone," Somers says. "There are millions of people across the country facing this same challenge."