Besides the mental and emotional strain of caregiving, helping an adult with mobility issues can take a massive physical toll. That’s especially true when the caregiver is an older person.

A 2014 study done from Ohio State University found that 94% of participating caregivers experienced musculoskeletal pain in at least one body part. In fact, 66% said the pain impacted their overall quality of life.

Takeaway: Caretakers need to be physically prepared to provide the best care possible, proactive about avoiding injury, and realistic about what they can and can’t do.

Considerable spoke to doctors, nurses, and care providers to get practical advice on how caregivers can take care of themselves, while taking care of others.

A caregiver, as defined by the Family Caregiver Alliance, “is an unpaid individual (for example, a spouse, partner, family member, friend, or neighbor) involved in assisting others with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks.”  

Caretakers need to be physically prepared to provide the best care possible, proactive about avoiding injury, and realistic about what they can and can’t do.

The FCA distinguishes between formal and informal caregivers. Informal caregivers provide unpaid care, while formal caregivers are compensated.

The sheer number of caregivers in America is staggering: A survey done by the FCA and AARP in 2015 identified 34 million Americans who provided care to an adult over the age of 50 in the 12 months prior to the survey.  

Nearly 75% of all caregivers are female, and according to the survey, provided on average almost 22 hours of care per week.

The average age of the caregivers surveyed was 49 years old, and 34% were 65 and up.  

A caregiver can have many roles, including less physically imposing tasks such as cooking, driving, and giving out medication.  But even innocuous-seeming chores like food shopping, housekeeping, and laundry can involve heavy lifting and carrying.

And for many caregivers, a large component of the work involves lifting, supporting, transporting, and carrying another person who is larger than they are.

So how can a caregiver avoid injury?  

1. Know your own physical capabilities

How much weight are you capable of carrying, and for how long? How comfortably can you bend your knees for lifting, or support someone who is leaning on you with their body weight?  Being in tune with your own body is important when you’re responsible for someone else.

As is staying in shape.

Dr. Antonio A. Graham, a geriatrician who is assistant professor, division of general medicine and geriatrics at Emory University, told Considerable that “maintaining some level of physical activity outside of caregiving is helpful.

“Brisk walks and stretching, yoga and tai chi are great options to relieve physical tension and mental stress.”

2. Proper technique is extremely important

Many injuries occur when trying to lift or transfer a person, so being aware of proper body mechanics can keep you from straining a muscle or pulling out your back.

“It’s best to use safe practices for weight bearing movement, for example using your knees and legs instead of your back for lifting,” says Dr. Graham, who also warned that injuries can happen when you’ve been pushed too far physically.

“Caregivers can best gauge their capacity if they feel extreme fatigue or pain after a normal day of caring for a patient or loved one. Feeling pain in their joints and back is a sign they’re past their capacity.

Other smart ways to alter your body technique include raising or lowering an adjustable bed to avoid unnecessary straining, and moving to the side of the person you are helping instead of reaching over them.

3. Ask for help

Of course a simple solution is often forgotten: “When possible, they should ask for help from others,” Dr. Graham admonished.

Sandy Griffin, certified hospice and palliative licensed nurse at Hospice of South Louisiana agrees: “If you feel uneasy about a lift or a physical task, it’s vital to ask for help.”

4. Invest in adaptive equipment

It’s also wise to invest in adaptive equipment that can ease the weight of certain difficult transfers, such as a Hoyer lift, and can provide extra weight-bearing support for yourself and the person for whom you’re caring.

5. Call for help

And remember: If the person you’re caring for has fallen and you aren’t sure you can safely lift them, call for help. Many caregivers have fallen themselves on attempts to pick up someone they are caring for. Make sure you listen to your body’s cues first to prevent self-induced injury.

According to Griffin, “If you’re starting to feel any kind of strain in your back, neck, or legs, it’s important to take a step back and ask for assistance.

By staying active, knowing your own limits, using proper technique, and not being afraid to ask for help when available, you can avoid the injuries and chronic pain that inflicts millions of caregivers.

And provide better care for the loved one who needs you.

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