The wonderful families I met while writing Caring for Our Parents had many things in common: The made tremendous sacrifices to help frail parents or spouses, they brought deep love and great patience to this responsibility. And under great physical, emotional, and financial stress, they often ignored their own health. 

It may sound selfish, but if you are assisting a loved one, you first need to take care of yourself. After all, if you get sick, who will help mom or dad? It is like the announcement flight attendants make: In an emergency, first put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child.

Often, people must move into a nursing home, not because their own health changes, but because their caregiver suffers a medical crisis. It happened to my own mother-in-law, Ida, who suffered a massive stroke while caring for her husband Al.

What can you do to keep yourself healthy while assisting a loved one who is frail or disabled? Here are a few tips:

Take a break. I know it is hard, but at least one day each week take some time off. Ask a neighbor or friend to sit with your dad or your spouse for a couple of hours. If you can afford it, hire an aide. While she is there, she can help with cooking or housework.

Use adult day care. Many offer meals, activities, and even transportation. Not only do they provide caregivers with important time off, but they can also be a great change of pace for mom or dad.

Get some exercise. If nothing else, at least walk a little bit each day. It will not only make you more physically fit, but it will help relieve stress.

Watch your own health. If you start feeling unusually tired or weak, or get headaches or lose your appetite, see your doctor.

Join a support group. They are a great way to share ideas or find a shoulder to cry on.

Caring for a loved one is never easy. But you can make it a lot more manageable if you first remember to care for yourself.