There are currently 50 million Americans caring for aging relatives or friends, and 70% of these individuals are employed (1). Caregivers as a whole are more likely to report fair or poor health than employed non-caregivers (2). In the Metlife research study, caregivers reported having symptoms of depression, and many had chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and pulmonary disease (2). These applied regardless of the caregiver’s age, gender, or work type (2). Most individuals who decide to become caregivers underestimate the time that it will take and the impact that it will have on their work. The typical length of time that a caregiver serves is eight years and often the duration becomes twice as long as the caregiver had expected (2). With all of this said, the following guide was compiled to help caregivers cope with the stresses of caregiving and also provide information on how to better take care of themselves.
Who is a caregiver?
66% of caregivers are women and 34% are men, although recent research suggests that the number of male caregivers will increase in the future due to social demographic factors (3). In regards to average age, most caregivers are 48 years old and 51% of caregivers are between the ages of 18 and 49 (3). About one-third of caregivers take care of two or more people and older caregivers are more likely to care for a spouse/partner. Another interesting finding of the study was that the number of hours dedicated to care giving increased as the age of the caregiver increased (3).
What impact does caregiving have on a caregiver’s health?
Stress is the most common side effect of caregiving; it increases blood pressure, insulin levels, and the risk for a heart attack, and also weakens the immune system(4). According to the Metlife study, both genders reported more stress in each age group than non caregivers, however stress levels for female caregivers were almost double those of non caregivers although the cause for this was not mentioned (2). Truly, any caregiver of either gender must be aware that these stress levels will impact his/her health and that he/she should manage this accordingly.
Another unintended consequence of caregiving is that the caregiver will often suffer fatigue, poor sleep patterns, a more unhealthy diet, and exercise less which typically results in weight gain (2). 20-50% of caregivers in the study reported suffering from depression and this is intensified for people caring for an individual with dementia (2).
Perhaps a result of stress and depression, caregivers are more likely than non-caregivers to engage in health risk behaviors such as smoking or using alcohol to excess. As a result of these side effects, caregivers also have a 63% higher mortality rate (4). These effects have the potential to cause a caregiver to abuse the care receiver if precautionary measures are not taken (4).
Caregiving not only produces negative health effects, it also produces positive ones. Those who serve as caregivers have positive feelings of being able to care, and feeling appreciated for the work that they do. They also benefit by improving their relationship with the care receiver.
What impact does caregiving have on work?
Typically when one assumes the role of a caregiver, it leads to his/her work and work schedule being compromised. 62% of workers aged 45 to 74 years-old currently have caregiving responsibilities for an aging or other adult relative and 20% of them expect to take time off from the job because of caregiving responsibilities (5). Often times, informal adjustments like these must be made to accommodate the needs of the loved one. This typically results in missing out on promotions and training at work and can hinder career development. Some businesses provide paid family leave benefits for working caregivers although this is not the case for most (5). According to the AARP Public Policy Institute report, workplace leave policies have not kept pace with the changes occurring today, and many middle and low-income workers do not have paid family leave benefits as a resource to aid them as they care for their loved one (5). The report found that only 12% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave benefits through their employers (5). This lack of paid family leave and/or having paid sick days can strain the financial security of any individual who is a caregiver.
How can I live “genki” while caregiving?
Be mindful of all aspects of wellness and be sure to allow time to take care of yourself. Remember that being sick as a caregiver will undermine your ability to continue providing good quality care for your loved one (6).
- Maintain relationships. According to a report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP, those who sacrifice social time are nearly 50% more likely to experience high emotional stress (7).
- Join a caregiver support group, get respite care, and find out information about adult day programs. Remember, no caregiver can go it alone very long.
- Meditation, yoga, and prayer all can help to combat stress while giving one an inner peace and reprieve from work as a caregiver (8).
- Taking a walk outside can be a great way to relax while viewing nature. Also collecting artwork, having a zen garden, or doing ikebana or bonsai can all help with managing stress.
- Get plenty of sleep. If you are caring for someone with dementia and they experience trouble sleeping, contact their doctor.
- Make appointments for regular exams, flu shots, and preventative screenings. Sometimes a simultaneous visit can be scheduled to make life easier. Also, get a massage as it will enhance feelings of well-being and improve mood.
- Explore caregiving-related programs offered through your employer. Many include leave time, flex time, free needs-assessments by geriatric care managers, and more. Not all employers offer these programs, but it is a resource that can only help.
- Seek financial security. Make sure to plan for personal retirement while caregiving and create a savings plan for your future benefit.
- Adopt a problem-solving approach. If a particular task in caregiving is stressful, figure out why and what might be done to correct it. Defining a problem and then formulating a solution for it helps you avoid being overwhelmed.
- Identify personal attitudes and beliefs that stand in the way of caring for yourself.
- Set goals for what to accomplish in the next three to six months. It could be getting help with caregiving tasks such as bathing and preparing meals. Also break down goals into smaller action steps.
- Reduce stress. Think of successful strategies used in the past to cope with stress and practice them. Simply performing an activity or hobby that is enjoyable can go a long way (9). Watch Guided Imagery for Relaxation.
Where can I get more information?
(1) US Dept of Health & Human Services. 1998 and National Family Caregivers Association, Random Sample Survey of Family Caregivers Summer 2000, unpublished.
(2) 2010. www.MatureMarketInstitute.com. The MetLife Study of Working Caregivers and Employer Health Care Costs.
(3) Caregiver.org. Fact Sheet: Selected Caregiver Statistics. http://www.caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/content_node.jsp?nodeid=439
(4) Family Caregiver Alliance & Clinical Gerontologist, Vol 27, 2004
(5) AARP Blog. Supporting Family Caregivers with Leave Policies in the Workplace. Lynn Feinberg. http://blog.aarp.org/2013/06/17/supporting-family-caregivers-with-leave-policies-in-the-workplace/?cmp=SN-TWTTR-PJS&sf14058630=1
(6) Family Caregiver Alliance. Taking Care of You. http://caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/content_node.jsp?nodeid=847
(7) Home Care of the Rockies. How to Keep in Touch while Caregiving. http://homecareoftherockies.com/how-to-keep-in-touch-while-caregiving/
(8) www.caregivershome.com. Spousal Caregiving: How Caregivers Can Maintain a Healthy Brain. http://www.caregivershome.com/spousal/spousal.cfm?UID=81
(9) National Family Caregivers Support Program, AoA, DHHS, 2002. Working Caregivers: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for the Aging Network.