Eating disorders can affect middle aged women; could caregivers be at risk?

  • Middle aged women who have become caregivers report many health issues because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control. Depression and weight loss, or weight gain, are common symptoms reported. Could the recurrence of a previous eating disorder, or the development of a new one, be far behind?


    An insightful post by Tara Parker-Pope on the New York Times blog titled An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders, points to the fact that eating disorders can develop anywhere over a life span, and that many older women may be at risk.


    According to the article, “… more and more women are showing up at… clinics in midlife or even older. Some had eating disorders early in life and have relapsed, but a significant minority first develop symptoms in middle age… Even in their 50s and 60s — and, believe it or not, beyond — women are engaging in extreme weight- and shape-control behaviors.”

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    Aging women, particularly those who are menopausal, may be harder to diagnose than younger women, since their periods have stopped and their age puts them at a higher risk for osteoporosis and other ailments associated with eating disorders in the young. Doctors may just chalk up the health effects of the malnutrition that is part of an eating disorder to aging, when in reality, the diseases would be reversible if caught early and the root of the problem found.

     

    Eating disorders often an expression of the need to control one’s life

     

     

    Women who are treated for eating disorders often say that their disease was triggered by a major event in their lives, such as a death or divorce. These events were out of their control, but the food they ate was not. What starts as, perhaps, a feeling that one may be more attractive if some weight is lost, can turn into an obsession because the person feels a sense of power over their body when all else seems out of control.

     

    Caregivers, generally in their mid-40s and upward in age, often feel as though they are on the proverbial gerbil wheel, never catching up to all of the demands on their time. They have children who need them. They have a job. They have the pressures of society to look thin and fit, and now they have their parents or spouse to care for.

     

    We’re not speaking of weight loss from the stress of caregiving. That is also a problem for some caregivers, as is weight gain, but those issues are different than the eating disorders referred to in the article.

     

    What we're talking about here is the need to control something – anything – so the caregiver rigidly controls food intake, either through a restricted diet or through binging and purging, known as bulimia.

     

    Caregiver stress makes itself known in many ways. Depression is one of the most recognized by medical experts. Over and under eating, as mentioned above, is another. But what “secret” ways are caregivers using to cope with the stress of caregiving? What other methods are they using to feel that they have some control over their lives?

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    This thought-provoking post by Parker-Pope opened up a new thought process for me. In the article, Parker-Pope refers to the fact that older women with eating disorders “fly under the radar.” How many of these women are stressed caregivers?

     

    I’d like to hear from caregivers who may have developed an eating disorder as a way to cope with caregiver stress, or who have relapsed to an eating disorder they thought they had conquered. Please e-mail me, or comment on this story if you’d like to share your thoughts.

     

    For more information about Carol, visit  www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.  

     

Published On: April 01, 2011