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How can caregiving affect my health?

Dr. Oluwatoyin Thomas, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

If you take on the role of caring for an aging loved one at home, your health is uniquely tied to that of your aging parent.

If something should happen to you, your parent will be affected. Thus, other family members need to pay close attention to the health of the aging parent as well as to your health. 

You need to make sure that you make time for yourself. In order to be able to care for others, you must be able to take care of yourself first. This is the right and best way to maintain a balance.

As the main caregiver, it is vital for you to have a built-in respite time, perhaps weekly or even daily. You will need and deserve to rest, relax and take a break on a regular basis. Only then will you be able to give your best to your loved one.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Caregiving can affect your health in many ways, especially if you do too much of it and don't take good care of yourself. In this video, psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, discusses the impact caregiving can have on our physical and mental health.

Dr. Patricia A. Bloom, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

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.

Caregivers are at risk for many different physical and mental health challenges. In general, they suffer from high levels of stress and frustration, show higher levels of depression than the general population, sometimes exhibit harmful behaviors, from increased use of alcohol or other substances to higher than normal levels of hostility.

Caregivers are also physically less healthy than noncaregivers, and have more chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis than their noncaregiving peers. They may also suffer from poorer immune function and from exhaustion. They neglect their own care (have lower levels of self care and preventive health behaviors than others), and have higher mortality rates than noncaregivers of the same age. Given these odds, caregivers need to take good care of themselves, and reduce their levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.

Studies find that middle-aged and older women who provide care for an ill or disabled spouse are six times as likely to suffer depressive or anxious symptoms as those who have no caregiving responsibilities. Other possible health effects include:

  • weakened immune system
  • higher risk of cardiovascular disease
  • higher risk of high blood pressure

Women caregivers also have a risk of dying earlier, studies find. That may be related to the effects of stress on their health, the fact that they don’t take care of their own health or because the caregiving may worsen an existing illness.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.