How to be a Happier, Healthier Caregiver
I met a new friend a few weeks ago who was visibly stressed. Her husband had passed away unexpectedly about six months before. Meanwhile, she was at her wit’s end caring for her 94-year-old mother, a woman who was desperate to maintain her independence while suffering from health problems that made it near impossible.
Another friend recently got the news that her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She’s considering moving home to help care for her. A third just lost her Japanese father to complications from diabetes. She spent the last year flying back and forth from the U.S. to Japan in an effort to help her mother manage everything.
All of these women are strong, caring people.
They’re also exhausted, and despite their strength, are falling victim to colds and infections more often than usual. It makes me worry, as studies have shown that caregiving can increase the risk of disease for the caregiver.
In 2003, for example, researchers analyzed data from over 54,000 women, and found that those who had taken care of a disabled or ill spouse for more than 9 hours a week had an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
There are a number of other studies showing that caregiving can be bad for the caregiver’s health. But of course we can’t turn our back on those that need us.
Is there any way to manage our caregiving responsibilities without wearing ourselves out, or worse, setting ourselves up for our own health problems?
Caregivers Are Usually Women
Being a caregiver is one of the toughest jobs any of us will ever face, and much of the time, it’s the women who face it.
My Japanese friend had a brother living in Japan, yet she was the one who shouldered most of the caregiving duties while her father was ill.
The AARP reported in 2015 that 60 percent of caregivers are female, with an average age of 49. Most are providing care for a relative, such as a parent or parent-in-law. One in 10 provides care for a spouse.
According to the Caregiving Alliance, “women’s caregiving is essential in providing a backbone of support.” They estimate 66 percent of caregivers are female, and state that women provide most of the informal (non-medical) care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends, and neighbors. While doing so, they play numerous roles, including:
- Hands-on health provider
- Care manager
- Surrogate decision-maker
Whatever we may think of how the gender roles play out, the truth of the matter is that in most cases, it’s the women who provide the care. That means women are more often at risk for complications.
Caregiving Increases Financial Stresses
Usually when we’re caregiving, we’re focused on making the other person feel better. But that takes time, energy, and money, and is most always stressful.
Before we even get into the potential health consequences, let’s look at some of the others. Most women are still working when they’re called upon to provide care, which means that they may face financial challenges due to lost wages from reduced work hours, time out of the workforce, family leave, or forced early retirement.
Caregiving can also be expensive, itself. Caregivers often help pay for medications; home-care items such as cushions, tools, and supplies; and even food and standard personal care items for their loved ones.
Then there is the demand on a caregiver’s time. The AARP estimates that on average, caregivers spend about 25 hours a week providing care. About a quarter of them provide 41 hours or more.
Most can’t give up work, so they try to manage both, almost as if taking on an additional part-time job while continuing to work full-time. This can take a toll on their careers, as studies have shown that caregiving reduces paid work hours for middle-aged women by about 41 percent.
All this adds up to significant financial stress. But as caregivers know, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Caregiving Increases Risk of Disease
While the financial stresses are bad enough, most caregivers would agree that the personal stresses are much harder to deal with.
Watching someone you love struggle to overcome an illness or even get through the day takes a toll on a person. Studies show that caregivers have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges than those who aren’t caregivers.
In one 2002 study, researchers reported that middle-aged and older women who provided care for an ill or disabled spouse were almost six times as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as those in the general population.
Being a caregiver interrupts pretty much everything in a woman’s life. Not only may she feel like she needs to cut back on her time at work, jeopardizing her career, but she may also cut back on her social activities, her exercise time, and her leisure activities in order to have more time to spend with her loved one.
Unfortunately, that means she’s cutting herself off from all the activities that help her deal with stress. She may become isolated, which can contribute to more feelings of stress and depression. She may become irritable, constantly tired, and more and more hopeless that things will ever change.
Along with all these mental problems come physical ones, too. Caregiving often robs women of restful sleep, and when we don’t get enough sleep, we are at risk for a number of other issues, including headaches, aches and pains, additional stress, overweight, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and more.
Caregivers usually take less time for their own medical care, which means they may miss important screenings and physicals, and may also fail to fulfill their own prescriptions. In one 2004 study, one in four female caregivers reported fair to poor health compared to 12 percent of women in the general population.
Then there are the serious risks. In addition to heart disease, caregivers are also at an increased risk for all of the following:
- High blood pressure
- Depressed immune system
- Type 2 diabetes
- Premature death—several studies have reported that caregiving increased risk of mortality
This is all pretty scary, especially considering that most women don’t have the financial or other resources to get help with their caregiving. What, then, are they to do to help take care of themselves while they care for others?
4 Ways Women Can Care For Themselves While Caring for Others
Caregiving will never be easy, but women can reduce their risk of disease and help themselves to better manage the challenge.
1. Get Help
Most women find it easy to help others, but more difficult to accept help, themselves. So the first thing a woman has to do as a caregiver is realize she can’t go it alone.
To believe that you can be superwoman and manage it all is to put your physical and mental health at risk. Instead, realize that caregiving is a challenge too big for one person, and try to find ways to get help.
There are a number of support services out there if you’re willing to look. Check with your loved one’s doctor about caregiving support groups. Talking with other caregivers can mean the difference between going out of your mind and maintaining your sanity.
If you can’t find a caregiver’s support group, find another type of group. One of my friends swears that her knitting club keeps her going. They are a group of experienced women that are willing to listen and provide emotional support—something my friend finds priceless.
Ask your employer about programs that may help as you go through this time. Some employers have programs in place for women who work and provide care for a loved one. Think about family or personal counseling and faith-based organizations. And don’t forget online resources—there are a number of online support groups that allow people to help each other long-distance. “Caregiveraction.org” is one example. The AARP also has a lot of available resources, and Caregiver.org has a list of state-by-state help for family caregivers.
Always keep your eyes open for where you can find help. Often just being willing to receive it is all you need to find the help you need.
2. Care for Yourself First
This can be tough, but think of it this way: if you get sick or down, you can no longer help your loved one.
That means you need to focus first on eating right, maintaining your daily exercise, and getting enough sleep. Try to set up a daily routine that increases your chances of doing all three. If that means you have to ask for more help, do it. If family members can’t provide care, maybe they’d be willing to pitch in financially so you can hire a home-care nurse or someone to help you take care of your house, pets, or kids.
Try not to allow your own self-care to be negotiable. Schedule daily times to exercise, and give yourself at least three activities a week that help you reduce stress. Maybe it’s a yoga class, an afternoon at the movies, a massage, or even a weekend day at the lake or on one of your favorite locations.
3. Be Aware of Your Own Warning Signs
Usually our bodies and minds give us warnings before they break down. Learn to pay attention to yours.
Some signs that caregiving stress is getting to you include:
- Cold and flu infections
- Skin rashes or acne breakouts
There may be more that are unique to you. If you see these signs, take them as warnings that you’ve got to ease up on yourself. Take a break, get some sleep, go for a walk, get away for the weekend—the options are endless. But do take these signs seriously. They’re your body’s way of telling you that you’re skating on thin ice.
It’s easy to say that you need to get help, find additional resources, and still manage your work and your life and your family, but it’s usually a lot harder to get it done.
Try to approach caregiving problems like you would any other problems in your life. If your car broke down, for example, you’d likely figure out what was wrong with it, decide whether to fix it or sell it, and then take action.
This time, the problem is that your caregiving activities are taking their toll on you and your health. Make a list of what you need. It might look something like this:
- Help with caregiving tasks.
- Someone to clean house.
- More time for myself.
- Additional cash to cover the additional expenses.
Talk with your spouse, friends, or support group about how you may accomplish these things. Brainstorm ideas, and then map out your action plans. Ask your friends for help. Try to make it fun, if you can. Go out to dinner with the key people in your life and put it all on the table.
How can we get more help to take care of Mom? Who can we turn to? Maybe you have a friend that would be willing to take Mom out once a week, or one that would be open to cooking dinner for her now and then. Maybe you know someone who could help manage insurance questions, or legal issues. Be open to new ideas, write them all down, and then select one solution and try it.
Often we just need the right attitude to get motivated to change things in our lives. You don’t have to do this all by yourself. Get creative. How can you enlist others to help you out?
If you find that you’re just too tired to even think about it, do what you have to do to get away, even just for the weekend. Usually a little distance can do wonders for helping you to recover and tackle the problem anew.
You can find a lot more help and resources at the following online locations:
- VA Caregiving Support
“Caregiving in the U.S.,” AARP, June 2015, http://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015_CaregivingintheUS_Final-Report-June-4_WEB.pdf.
“Women and Caregiving: Facts and Figures,” Caregiver.org, https://www.caregiver.org/women-and-caregiving-facts-and-figures.
Lee S., et al., “Caregiving and risk of coronary heart disease in U.S. women: a prospective study,” Am J Prev Med., February 2003; 24(2):113-9, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12568816.
Press Release (2002, August). Reverberations of family illness: A longitudinal assessment of informal caregiving and mental health status in the nurses’ health study. American Journal of Public Health.
Brenda Goodman, “Alzheimer’s Caregivers May be at Risk for Dementia,” WebMD, May 13, 2011, http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20110513/alzheimers-caregivers-may-be-at-risk-for-dementia.
Lee, S. L., Colditz, G. A., Berkman, L. F., & Kawachi, I. (2003). Caregiving and risk of coronary heart disease in U.S. women: A prospective study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 24(2), 113–119.