Caring for an aging or disabled loved one brings unique gifts and memories that most caregivers wouldn’t trade for anything. Yet, the role also brings risks that sometimes go unnoticed.
Providing care can be a lot to handle on top of busy work and family schedules. Research shows that 80 percent of all long-term care is handled by family members and the persistent stress of caregiving can take years off the life of a family caregiver. The majority of family caregivers are women, often an adult daughter or a spouse. That means on any given day, a vast number of women are coming to the aid of elderly parents and ailing spouses. Women feel the emotional stress of caregiving more acutely than men, suffering more bouts of anxiety and depression, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
Women cite reasons for stress ranging from the fear of not being a good enough caregiver, feelings of guilt over slighting other obligations, as well as feelings of loneliness, isolation and sheer exhaustion. Add to that the difficulty of caring for a loved one who may be argumentative and critical as a result of dementia, and the pressure escalates.
The good news is that there are ways to mitigate stress and preserve the health of the caregiver. Consider these suggestions:
1) Get help.
Even in large families, usually one member takes on primary caregiving responsibilities. But that doesn’t absolve siblings, or in the case of spousal caregivers, adult children and grandchildren, from obligation. Often they’re in the wings, waiting to be asked to help or told what to do. If you’re the caregiver, speak up. Tell family members what you need and what you expect from them. If you don’t have family resources, look outside the family for other supports to provide respite, run errands or prepare a meal.
2) Take care of yourself.
According to the American Psychological Association, many caregivers neglect their own health. They don’t eat properly, fail to manage chronic conditions, and sometimes forego their own preventive health care. Caring for another shouldn’t come at the expense of your own health. Take the time to eat properly, keep your own doctor appointments, take medication as directed, take a multi-vitamin and get some exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk.
Exhaustion puts caregivers at high risk for illness by lowering resistance to disease. In addition, tired caregivers who are themselves seniors are more likely to have accidents and falls. As a caregiver, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get seven to eight hours of sleep a day.
4) Tap into technology.
Loneliness and isolation contribute to feelings of depression among caregivers. Even if you can’t go out with friends as much as you’d like, you can keep in touch through email, social media channels like Skype and Face Time. In addition, face-to-face communication programs can be used to connect your loved one with far-flung family members and friends.
5) Take a break.
Respite care is one of the most important stress-reliever for long-term caregivers. Yes, you can call on family and friends, but sometimes that won’t be enough or it simply isn’t possible. Familiarize yourself with community resources and be willing to use them. Call your Area Agency on Aging for information on transportation options, meal delivery services and adult day care centers that might be useful. Care.com can be a great resource for in-home assistance such as companions, housekeepers and cooks. Once you’ve established regular respite care, do something good for yourself with the time. Go to a movie, visit friends, have a date night with your spouse or get your hair done.
It is important to remember that caregiving can have some positive health effects. If caregivers manage stress effectively, they’re likely to cherish the time spent with their loved one and emerge with a sense of gratitude and a more positive outlook on life. Approaching the task of caregiving with a clear understanding of the risks and rewards can pave the way for a meaningful and emotionally enriching life journey.
Photo: Shutterstock/Florence McGinn