Are you a primary caregiver to a spouse, parent, grandchild or other loved one? If so, you may be at increased risk for significant health problems, especially when you try to take on too many stressful duties without help. On the other hand, caregiving can be a rewarding experience if you have the right support, knowledge and self-care tactics to depend on. Here’s what you need to know.
Overwhelming job, no pay
Caregiving has been called the fastest growing unpaid profession in the United States. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, more than 65.7 million Americans—29 percent of the U.S. adult population—provide care to a family member, friend or loved one who is ill, disabled or aged. For many of these caregivers, the role may include a variety of challenging tasks, including bathing the person they’re caring for, preparing meals, escorting him or her to doctor’s visits, and managing medicines.
According to a Gallup survey, 72 percent of caregivers provide for a parent, a step-parent or a mother- or father-in-law. Among the chronic conditions for which people may require care are cancer, stroke, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. And almost 15 million people care for someone with a form of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease—a condition that contributes to some of the highest and most exhausting demands placed on caregivers.
Not surprisingly, the strain of caregiving can take a heavy toll—both physically and emotionally. Many caregivers are so busy caring for others that they often neglect their own emotional and physical health. Studies have indicated that caregivers may be at a greater risk for depression and chronic illness, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and an impaired immune system, than noncaregivers. In one study, caregivers 66 and older had a 63 percent higher mortality rate than noncaregivers their age.
The mental toll is often the greatest burden. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of dementia caregivers experience depression and high levels of stress. They’re also more likely to require antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and similar medications than the general population. Caught up by competing demands of time and energy, by perceptions of burden and by fears for the future, virtually all caregivers at some time suffer from loneliness, exhaustion, anxiety and sadness. If these problems are left unaddressed and not identified by a family doctor, severe depression is almost inevitable. Therefore, a caregiver’s mental and physical health has to be a priority.
Neglecting yourself may in fact hurt the person you’re trying to help. Research suggests that the well-being of both the caregiver and the person being cared for are deeply intertwined. If you can get help relieving your caregiving burden, you may be able to provide more quality care.
If you’re suffering from caregiver stress, try these tips:
1. Ask for help. Avoid being the sole caregiver. This may mean asking adult children or siblings to help with groceries or car rides. Family and friends, members of your place of worship, governmental agencies such as your city or state Area Agency on Aging Office, and local volunteer organizations are all potential sources of aid and support for caregivers. Some hospitals and support organizations couple new caregivers with experienced caregivers or social workers. Together, they help you coordinate assistance from family and friends.
2. Let it all out. Talk to a family member, friend, clergy or counselor about what you’re experiencing or seek a local support group. Research shows that those with emotional outlets and the support of family or friends report less stress and fewer health ailments than those without such connections.
3. Get up to speed. Specialized health organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association or the American Cancer Society can provide detailed information about the disease your loved one is facing. These organizations can also help you get in touch with support groups in your area.
4. Remember your health needs. Remembering your own doctor appointments and when to take your medicine can be difficult enough without having to juggle someone else’s schedule as well. Keeping a calendar of your appointments, writing yourself reminders or even setting an alarm when it’s time to take your medicine can be cues to help you stay on top of your health issues.
5. Get moving. Physical activity is good for the body and the brain. Endorphins, released in the brain during exercise, promote feelings of well-being. Getting 30 minutes of physical activity, such as walking, on all or most days of the week, along with regular, well-balanced meals high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains and low in fat will help you stay fit and avoid excessive weight gain.
6. Enjoy a hobby. Carve out some time each week to do something you enjoy, such as reading a book, watching a movie or gardening. If you can, take periodic breaks from caregiving—go on a short vacation. This may mean asking other family members to step in for a few days or contacting a respite care provider to come to the house to assist your loved one. Making time for yourself is critical; one afternoon a week may be all you need.
7. Seek professional help. If you’re not sure what you need or feel overwhelmed by the logistics of caring for someone at home, talk with your doctor. He or she can recommend local support services or refer you to a social worker, a nurse or an occupational therapist who can evaluate the patient and his or her residence and make recommendations for in-home medical care or safety renovations. Insurance may cover the cost of an in-home assessment.
Visiting nurses and home-health aides who are paid by the hour are the most common source of in-home medical help. The Eldercare Locator, a service administered in part by the federal Administration on Aging, provides lists of local qualified home-healthcare companies. Rates and responsibilities vary widely. If you hire in-home medical help, take advantage of your access to professional know-how. Most home-health aides can teach you helpful skills, like how to change a catheter drainage bag, give a sponge bath or change bandages.
Short-term respite care provides programs that send a healthcare professional to your home for temporary care of your loved one. Short-term stays in an assisted-living facility or nursing home can also be arranged.
Adult daycare is another option and is often less expensive than in-home help. Some facilities offer organized activities for adults and have medical staff on site. However, complaints about neglect, theft and mental and physical abuse have been reported, so research a facility carefully before you commit to it. Check the center with the Better Business Bureau and ask the center for a list of references.
If you can, talk to families you meet in the parking lot or during a visit to the site, stop by the center at different times of the day and watch how the staff interact with participants.
Taking advantage of the whole range of help and community support available can significantly lighten your emotional load. Caregivers whose own health needs are met and who get the support they need do a better job for themselves and the people they care for.
Despite the challenges of caregiving, research finds that between one-third and one-half of caregivers are doing quite well emotionally. They say that they feel they’ve been able to “give something back” to a loved one who provided for them and believe they’re fulfilling an important duty.