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With our medical system in a shambles, there’s another crisis that few people are talking about: the caregivers. Currently about 39 million Americans care for someone who is sick. Experts expect that number to grow.

I see caregivers everywhere. They’re in my extended family, my neighborhood, my church. They’re caring for people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, people struggling with cancer or heart disease, and mental illness.

Scientists have found that the unrelenting stress on caregivers can damage the DNA of their cells, which accelerates their aging process faster than noncaregivers. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that caregivers who felt stressed by their caregiving tasks (either physically or emotionally) were sixty-three percent more likely to die prematurely compared to noncaregivers.

With caregiving, you cannot put yourself last, in the middle—or even in second place. You have to put yourself first and not become swayed by caregivers who appear to do the impossible. Comparisons never are the work of the soul. Loving yourself is the first and hardest step of caring for your soul. Once you know how to care deeply for yourself, you can begin to learn how to care for others.

One caregiver takes pride in decorating her mother’s bulletin board and room at her mother’s assisted-living facility. Everyone wants to spend time in this room because it’s so inviting, so creative. Another person gave the caregiver in his family two memberships to the health club: one for the caregiver and one for the person with Alzheimer’s. Every day, I see the caregiver park her mother on a stationary bicycle in front of the TV at the health club while the caregiver works out. It gives both of them a much-needed break.

I am encouraged when people are creative about their difficult circumstances. There is much pain and suffering in this world, and although it’s important to be compassionate and caring, it also helps to do things that open our souls instead of shutting them down.

What are you doing to open your soul?

Written by Jolene Roehlkepartain.