By Judith Boyko
As Americans live longer and remain independent in their homes, responsibilities for caring for them fall on family members and friends. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, more than 65 million Americans provide care without pay for individuals in their communities. AARP reports that the “estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $450 billion in 2009, up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007.”
These 65 million Americans — as a result of their stressful caregiving duties combined with other obligations like work and family — are at a higher risk for compromised physical and emotional health than those who do not serve as caregivers or those who have a support system of people who can share caregiving responsibilities.
Oftentimes, caregivers spend energy focusing on their loved ones — but not on themselves. This puts them at risk for depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and other mental health issues. They also have higher levels of stress, report experiencing lower levels of self-esteem and even resentment toward the individual in their care.
Many caregivers practice preventive care (going to the dentist, getting a routine physical exam) less often, have bad eating habits and sleep less than those who are not weighed down with caregiving duties. They may even increase alcohol intake to help them cope. Perhaps not surprisingly, caregivers have a higher mortality rate than non-caregivers.
How can caregivers avoid the negative health consequences of caregiving while successfully managing their own lives?
Perhaps, most importantly, caregivers should know their limits. Setting a schedule for caregiving duties may be helpful to other members of the care team who can step in when the primary caregiver is not available or has other responsibilities to meet.
Caregivers may also encourage independence among those in their charge by setting up new communication technologies, arranging for visits from other family members and friends and even scheduling day trips with members of the community.
Individuals who care for someone with a chronic or terminal condition should learn as much as possible about the illnesses to minimize feelings of anxiety of the unknown and increase caregiving efficacy.
In addition to securing respite from a professional caregiver — such as a home health aide or companion — family caregivers should eat healthfully to keep their energy up. They should also carve out time for activities that are especially enjoyable to them, such as reading; exercising, which can help to relieve stress and benefit one’s overall health; getting a massage; or taking a vacation. Regularly writing in a journal may be helpful in sorting out negative or confusing feelings.
Caregiver support groups — whether in person or online — provide a forum for people in similar situations to share ideas and resources.
Caregiving can be extremely fulfilling. Many caregivers find a strong sense of meaning and satisfaction in helping a loved one. However, without proper self-care, a caregiver will be unable to provide the best possible care for a loved one.
Judith Boyko, MBA, MS, RN, is CEO of Century Health Systems, Natick Visiting Nurse Association and Distinguished Care Options. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-651-1786. For additional information, visit www.centuryhealth.org, www.natickvna.org or www.dco-ma.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.