As our U.S. population ages, family members providing unpaid care to elderly parents has significantly increased. Primarily these caregivers are women, and a significant number also hold jobs outside of the home. When coupled with the additional responsibilities of children, the “sandwich generation” is coming to a breaking point. Most caregivers will report that they find caring for a loved one rewarding on an emotional level; however, the stress and anxiety that accompany this care is often times difficult to manage.
The U.S Department of Health and Human Services refers to individuals who are not paid to care for family members as informal or family caregivers. These caregivers provide care on a regular basis and often manage this family member’s daily tasks such as bathing, eating, and taking medications. They are also responsible for arranging activities, health provider appointments, and even managing medical and financial decisions on behalf of the family member. Caregiver responsibilities also include care of a chronically ill or terminal spouse or disabled child.
The demands of providing this care coupled with the regular demands of their personal lives can often times take both a physical and psychological toll. Caregiver stress can manifest itself in many ways. HHS’s Office on Women’s Health list several signs on its website. Common signs and symptoms include: feeling overwhelmed; feeling alone, isolated, or deserted by others; sleeping too much or too little; gaining or losing weight; feeling tired most of the time; losing interest in activities you used to enjoy; becoming easily irritated or angered; feeling worried or sad often; having headaches or body aches often.
Leaving these symptoms unchecked and ignored can lead to serious health problems for the caregiver, including depression and anxiety, a weakened immune system, obesity, and other chronic health conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, as well as other chronic conditions. It is imperative that caregivers report any of these symptoms to their health care provider. Of course, an additional by-product of caregiving is that the caregiver often ignores her own health concerns. The adage you cannot pour from an empty cup is apt when considering how to best preserve your health while serving as a caregiver.
Caregivers should strive to reduce stress by committing to a good sleep routine, healthful eating, and getting some physical activity in each day. Another tip to reducing stress is to set realistic goals about what you can and cannot do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. Support groups are helpful for feeling less isolated, and many can offer tips and problem-solving strategies to help with your caregiver duties.
Respite care in the form of both in- and out-of-home care can help to reduce the stress of caring for a loved one. Many communities have adult day care facilities, and some local agencies can help provide in-home care by professional caregivers. Some of these resources may be difficult to access now because of Covid restrictions, but reaching out to other family members and friends can help provide necessary breaks.
For individuals who work outside of the home, employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to access up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for family. While this may not be available or feasible to many, it should not be overlooked by those who qualify.
Caring for an infirmed or ailing family member is indeed a noble undertaking and a call that many will heed, but it is important to try and balance the needs of your family member with the need to stay healthy yourself. Maintaining good health and reducing stress will allow you to provide the best care to those you love.