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The Role of the Caregiver: What does it mean for your health?

Caring for a loved one can bring incredible rewards—both physical and emotional. Caregiving roles take on countless shapes and forms. It can be assisting older adults, the ill, and disabled friends and family members, and every day help in small and big tasks.

Caregiving can ignite all sorts of positive emotions as well, from compassion to satisfaction to “a vicarious happiness at being able to help,” says psychologist Michael J. Poulin. It can even sometimes help strengthen the caregiver’s physical and cognitive performance as they age themselves.

“Many family caregivers report positive experiences from caregiving, including a sense of giving back to someone who has cared for them, the satisfaction of knowing that their loved one is getting excellent care, personal growth and increased meaning and purpose in one’s life,” says the American Psychological Association.

But the role isn’t without its struggles, which can take a toll on the caregiver’s own health. If the caregiving responsibilities become too demanding over time, caregivers become exhausted and stressed. Because most people in this role are women, dealing with caregiver stress has emerged as an important part of women’s care. Doctors are seeing an increasing number of women whose health has been depleted by the challenges of caregiving.

What is caregiver stress?

For most caregivers, the day-to-day tasks they perform for a loved one are piled on top of an already busy schedule, leading to feelings of stress, depression and can be overwhelming.

At least 19 percent of U.S. adults provide unpaid care for the elderly in their lives—and as Baby Boomers continue to age, that number is expected to grow. Many caregivers are aging themselves; roughly a third of adults age 50-61 are family caregivers helping a spouse, child, parent or grandparent. Most of these caregivers are women. Three-fourths have jobs on top of their caregiving duties, and many still have children at home.

Trying to hold onto a job while caring for a family member is a juggling act. One has to frequently arrive late or leave early, be interrupted at work with medical phone calls, cut back to part-time work, and decline travel or promotions. Nearly 20 percent take a leave of absence, and others end up leaving the workforce entirely, interrupting careers and causing financial difficulties.

Feeling pulled in so many directions often leaves caregivers feeling stressed and can manifest in various ways. There is often little time for friends and other family members, and often there are financial hardships. If one is fortunate enough to find health aides from an agency or privately, they require oversight and if their schedule changes suddenly or there is a conflict with the care they are providing that adds stress. Overall, one in six reports that caregiving has caused their health to decline.

How to manage caregiver stress

Caregiving typically becomes harder and more complex, so it’s important to bolster your support system now. It’s easy to get so caught up in day-to-day caregiving that one does not find help along the way.

Seek out community resources. Most communities offer a host of helpful services such as hot lines, senior centers, day programs, and meals on wheels, which can help take the stress off caregivers.

Join a support group. Caregivers often feel isolated and may struggle with feelings of frustration, exhaustion, resentment, or guilt. A support group provides a safe place to express these emotions as well as learn how others cope. If unable to leave the house, there are caregiving support groups online, often specific to the condition such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, and heart conditions.

Take time off. It may seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but self-care becomes more important than ever when you’re caring for others. Regularly taking some time for yourself can go a long way toward managing caregiver stress. Maintain the daily practices that help keep you balanced, such as meditating, talking to friends or another family member, or taking walks if possible.

Enlist backup. Even if you’re the primary caregiver, that doesn’t mean other relatives can’t pitch in. Work with family members to create a plan. When friends and neighbors offer to help, take them up on it. You often feel indispensable as you know your person best and can anticipate their needs. But not taking a break can cause you to become ill yourself or be so mentally depleted that you are not a positive caregiver. Do not feel guilty about asking for help, and try not to have your loved one become so dependent upon you that they do not accept help from others. Let them know you will be back, but you need a little time for yourself. Then do just that.

Tips for new caregivers

• If you are new to the caregiving role, acquaint yourself with the position and seek help.

• Learn more about the family member’s diagnosis to help you understand and plan ahead.

• Talk with the care recipient about their healthcare wishes. Start conversations about finances and healthcare early. To better prepare for emergencies, complete a Durable Powers of Attorney for finances, and healthcare proxy.

• Get the whole family involved in a discussion about what is needed, including the family member who needs care. This is an opportune time for everyone to say what they need, make plans and ask for assistance.

• Connecticut Home Care for Elders provides state paid homecare for those on Medicaid who medically qualify. Call 855-626-6632.