According to AARP’s 2015 Caregiving in the U.S. Report, just over 34 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone over age 50. Assuming responsibility for another person’s health, finances and happiness is, of course, a stressful undertaking. Complicating matters further, most of these informal caregivers are ill prepared for this role and have little support to assist them in their endeavors. This has turned into a growing public health issue as seniors live longer, require more intensive care and look to family members to help them remain in their own homes as they age.
While helping a loved one manage their health and remain in the community can be very rewarding, caregivers often feel overburdened as they try to meet their care recipients’ needs, look after their own families and perform at work. Self-care is usually the first thing to drop off the priority list, but this can have devastating effects.
The Emotional Effects of Caregiving
When stress is short-lived, the results are rarely damaging. In fact, acute stress plays a key role in enhancing focus and motivation to help us power through challenges. However, when stress becomes a constant in life, it can become overwhelming. There are already strong emotions at play when someone you love is ailing. Not only are family caregivers genuinely concerned for their loved ones’ wellbeing, but they also assume a certain degree of responsible for it. Pressure to perform often comes from the care recipient, other family members, medical professionals and oneself.
Over time, these emotions and the intense pressure can transform into feelings of anger, resentment, frustration and exhaustion. Since there is minimal support available to caregivers, loneliness and sadness can also arise. Most family caregivers do not anticipate how long their responsibilities will last. The average duration of this role is 3.7 years, but those caring for individuals with progressive chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can end up providing care for a decade or longer.
Caregivers who ignore the effects of chronic stress and do not prioritize their emotional health are at risk of developing caregiver burnout and more serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. It is crucial for caregivers to be keenly aware of their emotional limits and regularly take inventory of their moods and behavior. Irritability, mood swings and difficulty concentrating are indicators that it’s time to take a step back and evaluate how to minimize one’s responsibilities.
The Physical Effects of Caregiving
It is well known that mental and physical health are closely linked. Long-term stress can wreak havoc on dietary habits, sleep quality and the immune system, contributing to headaches, fatigue, digestive problems, heart disease and even substance abuse. All these factors can be detrimental to a healthy person, but for caregivers with existing medical issues, they can be life-threatening.
Family caregivers experience declines in their health due to poor diet, lack of exercise, ongoing sleep deprivation and failure to engage in preventive health measures, such as doctor’s appointments, immunizations for flu and pneumonia, and recommended screenings for cancers, high cholesterol, and diabetes. A shortage of time, energy and funds are typically to blame for these oversights, as many family members place their care recipients’ needs before their own. The intention behind this gesture is good, but it can ultimately backfire.
An infamous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that senior caregivers who experienced care-related mental or emotional strain had a 63 percent higher mortality risk than senior non-caregivers. Prioritizing your loved one’s needs is noble, but who will care for them if you are hospitalized, require care yourself or pass away?
Self-Care Is Crucial for Caregivers
No caregiver is capable of being constantly “on duty,” and this includes health care professionals like nurses and doctors. Time off from providing care is not a luxury or an indulgence; it is a necessity. The best way to manage your mental and physical health and prevent problems from arising is to incorporate regular respite into your loved one’s care plan so you have the time and ability to care for yourself.
Respite care comes in many forms and ensures that your care recipient receives the supervision and assistance they need, allowing you to lend your full focus to other important tasks. In-home care services, adult day care, other family members, and senior centers can all provide a temporary reprieve from the responsibilities of caregiving. This newfound free time could be used to go for a walk outside, attend your own doctor’s appointments, take a well-deserved nap, spend quality time with friends or engage in a hobby you love. All these things will help you mentally recharge and safeguard your physical health.
Naturally, you want the best for your care recipient, but you cannot provide that for them if you are not at your best. Without adequate self-care, family caregivers can jeopardize their own wellbeing as well as that of their loved ones.
Sources: Caregiving in the U.S. 2015 (https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/caregiving-in-the-united-states-2015-report-revised.pdf); The Short-Term Stress Response – Mother Nature’s Mechanism for Enhancing Protection and Performance Under Conditions of Threat, Challenge, and Opportunity (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5964013/); Caregiving as a risk factor for mortality: the Caregiver Health Effects Study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10605972)