Guest Article by Helen Franks, Last Updated 13 May 2016
Over 34 million people in the U.S. in approximately 21 per cent of all American households provide care to adults who are ill or have disabilities. The majority of caregivers are family members, close friends or neighbors who wish to help someone they love. The average caregiver is a women in her mid-40s who has been to college and provides over 20 hours of care per week to her mother. Caregiving has important economic costs, since around 37% of caregivers for patients aged 50 or more have to work fewer hours or quit their jobs to provide the care their loved ones need.
Caregiving wrests from one’s personal and work time, but it also has serious psychological consequences. Studies show that caregivers often struggle to find time for their own needs, have difficulty managing physical and emotional stress, and are sometimes unable to adequately balance conflicting demands from work or other family members. Since most caregivers are only in their 40s, they often have children to care for, and the latter’s emotional and economic needs can be difficult to reconcile with the needs of the care recipient. It has been found that caregivers often do not visit their doctors when they are ill, because they are too busy caring for the recipients’ needs. At other times, they are simply too tired to take the steps their health requires, since sleep is interrupted and they cannot tally sufficient hours of rest per night.
The level of the decline in caregivers’ health increases in proportion to the amount of time they spend taking care of their loved ones. Those who spend 40 hours or more on caregiving tend to be the most hard hit. Many feel that stress and depression wrests from their ability to provide proper care. In the U.S., caregivers spend 20.4 hours per week on average providing care, and 26% provide anywhere from 21 to 40 hours of care. Their help can include giving medication; helping care recipients in and out of bed; feeding; cooking; bathing and grooming; and assisting with toilet use, diapers, etc.
Signs of Stress in Caregivers
Symptoms of a decline in caregiver health include anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, weight issues, lower physical fitness levels, loss of appetite, digestive issues, shortness of breath, and heart attack scares.
Solutions for Caregivers
Research has shown that caregivers were most likely to use a service in which they could contact an expert about their biggest sources of stress. Six out of 10 would also rely on mobile health services, which could provide them with healthcare in their neighborhoods. Obtaining prescriptions from mobile vans would also enable them to save much needed time.
Expert mentoring can be valuable in many ways to caregivers. Experts can recommend ways to make the caregiver’s job easier. For instance, they can recommend products for bathing or carrying the care recipient, oxygen tank carriers, or medical alert systems. They can also enlighten caregivers on how to delegate tasks to other family members, and help them create a schedule to ensure that no family member assumes more of a burden than they can bear. If nursing care is necessary for some parts of the day or on particular occasions, this too needs to be incorporated into a long-term strategy that involves other family members.
The possibility of a ‘health coach’ has also been discussed in recent research, with findings indicating that health caregivers would be more likely to engage in healthy behaviors if someone reminded them of appointments, stressed the importance of eating well, etc.
Requirements for Reducing Caregiver Stress
The key requirements for a successful plan to promote stress reduction in caregivers include:
- Time saving
- Shared responsibilities
- Stress reduction
- Caring for the caregiver
In addition to benefiting from government funded support, caregivers can also take specific steps to reduce their stress. These include having a personal emergency plan that can be followed when they feel like they are overloaded with work, being on the lookout for signs of anxiety and stress, and being aware of the extent to which daily stress can affect their health in the long-term. Caregivers need to find the time (by delegating part of the caregiving work to others) to take part in anti-stress activities such as yoga and mindful meditation, which have been proven to reduce stress hormone levels in a variety of settings. Keeping physically fit, consuming a healthy diet, and taking time to enjoy the things that give one joy in life are vital if one is to remain a healthy individual who is not entirely defined by the needs of the care recipient.