Many people are involved in caregiving for people with chronic illness, including dementia, either as paid caregivers, or as family or unpaid caregivers. In 2009, the National Alliance for Caregiving, with the AARP and MetLife Foundation, reported in their “Caregiving in the US Executive Summary” that three in 10 American households had at least one person providing unpaid care as a family caregiver. Most family caregivers are women (66%), typically a daughter or spouse of the care recipient, who spend an average of 4.6 years giving an average of 20.4 hours of care a week, the value which tallies in the hundreds of billions of dollars!
Numerous studies have documented possible health risks associated with caregiving including emotional distress, depression, dementia, physical health problems, even death. One study shows that caregivers experiencing caregiver strain have a 63% increased risk of mortality. The flip side is that caregivers who do not experience a burden of caregiving do not have this risk, so the important message for caregivers is this: take care of yourself and avail yourself of caregiver support.
Many caregivers mistakenly think they have no time to care for themselves, even though they recognize that their health and emotional wellbeing have declined from caregiving. If this sounds like you, STOP! Recognize the necessity of attending to your own mental, physical, and social wellbeing so you can continue to be an effective caregiver. Self-care is important: get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise. Continuing to reach out to family and friends for emotional support and caregiving respite is crucial. Many centers and agencies offer help for caregivers, such as adult day programs, respite care, and support groups. Groups such as the Alzheimer’s Association offer online information, local chapter resources, support groups, and advocacy. The services of an elder care attorney or a geriatric care manager may also be of great help.
I teach caregivers simple mindfulness practices to help reduce the stress of caregiving. Other pleasant activities (listening to music, reading, physical activity) can also be very supportive.
One third of caregivers report that they experience neither strain nor negative health effects from caregiving. They report that caregiving allows them to feel good about themselves and adds meaning to their lives. Taking good care of yourself and seeking available help may allow you to be part of this group.