It may have happened suddenly with an accident or illness. Or maybe it was a slow progression that began with driving your loved one to the doctor. Without even noticing, you began taking time off work to help prepare meals, handle finances, and take care of household duties.
Now that you are a caregiver, you’ve begun to see the ups and downs this new role has to offer. It’s enjoyable to spend time with your loved one and to build up your friendship and your memories together. But it can be a difficult position as well. In part, it can be challenging to handle your own wellbeing as you spend more and more time caring for someone else.
Caregivers and Work
Approximately 44.4 million people within the United States alone provide unpaid care to a family member or friend over the age of 18. While women make up the majority of these caregivers (at 61%), men still help out. The average age of a caregiver is 46, and these individuals, who often also hold a job outside the home, spend an average of over four years providing care at around 21 hours each week.
These caregivers struggle with responsibilities of supporting an individual in need of constant care, managing a home, and sometimes even working at a job. Oftentimes, they are forced to choose between their outside responsibilities and ensuring their loved one is safe and comfortable. According to Mature Market Institute, caregivers’ jobs suffered either with the schedule itself requiring adjustment or the inability to advance:
- 16% of those surveyed quit their job due to caregiving responsibilities
- 20% of caregivers switched from full-time to part-time
- 22% had to take a leave of absence to care for their aging parent or another loved one
- 22% could not acquire new job skills due to their caregiving responsibilities
- 25% of caregivers needed to pass up a job transfer or relocation opportunity at work
- 29% of individuals surveyed passed up a promotion, training, or an assignment because of their caregiving duties
Caregivers and Health
The role of caregiver is a stressful one, with all of the clinical signs of a chronic stress experience:
- There is both physical and psychological strain that occurs over an extended time period.
- There is sometimes extreme periods of unpredictability and lack of control.
- Caregiving can create stress in other areas of life, including work and family.
- It requires one to constantly be alert.
Caregivers are more likely to have depression or other mental health disorders as compared to others who are not in a caregiving role. As the health of the patient declines, both the burden (whether it is real or perceived) and the level of depression will increase in the caregiver. Even after a patient is placed in a nursing home or similar outside care situation, caregivers are not relieved of the emotional strain and stress associated with their position. In fact, in most situations, the level of depression remains the same as if the patient was still in the home.
Caregivers are also likely to have related anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and chronic diseases if they experience depression.
Caregivers have higher levels of stress due to their roles, but they also report additional emotional issues, including frustration, anger, guilt, helplessness, and exhaustion. The emotional strain associated with caring for a loved one can feel overwhelming at times. The constant worry and uncertainness can lead to lower levels of self esteem and even a loss of self-identity.
Studies show that caregivers who experience chronic stress are more likely to experience a decline in their own mental health, including a loss of short-term memory and a decreased attention span.
Caregivers and Sleep
Twenty-two percent of caregivers report being exhausted at bedtime, yet unable to relax enough to let go of their responsibilities and sleep. However, a well-rested night of sleep will allow a caregiver to be more effective in his or her role and should be a top priority. It all goes back to the idea that if you can’t take care of you, you will be unable to care for anyone else. Consider these important tips to restore a full night of sleep and improve your own health care.
Ask For Help
No one expects you to be a caregiver without any assistance at all. This is especially true in situations of “sundowning,” a state of confusion or anxiety in Alzheimer’s patients that occurs or worsens in the evening. Sundowning often results in a patient’s inability to fall or stay asleep. When caring for a patient who exhibits these symptoms, a caregiver will most likely be kept up at night, even if the patient happens to sleep soundly.
Due to the missed sleep and added worry, it’s important to make up that lost sleep to function efficiently during the day. Ask for help from a family member, friend, or a professional service to ensure that you get the sleep you need.
Don’t Miss Doctor’s Appointments
Sure, you take your loved one to each and every doctor’s appointment, but don’t miss your own regular checkups. Many caregivers – as much as 72% – state that they miss their own doctor visits or simply forgo making necessary appointments. A visit with a physician is an opportune time to discuss sleep issues and uncover any more serious underlying issues, such as sleep apnea.
Exercise can help caregivers in numerous ways, including:
- Improve sleep
- Help with depression
- Improve overall health
So while your loved one watches a TV show or takes a nap, get up and get moving. Even just ten minutes of physical activity per day can help.
Benefits of Caregiving
While there is a potential for negative effects of caregiving, there are also benefits that are seen with the role. Approximately a third of caregivers report no negative health effects. This is typical for those new to the role as well as individuals who have an extensive support system. Even if the demands of caring for a loved one become intense, some caregivers continue to cite the benefits they receive from spending time with their loved one, including:
- Feeling good about themselves
- Feeling needed
- Learning new skills
- Giving meaning to their lives
- Strengthening their relationships
Studies reveal that it may be just as beneficial to give care as to receive it. As long as one has supportive social relationships with other family members and friends, in addition to that relationship with the loved one, a caregiver will feel healthier and happier than one who is socially isolated.