As we age, the likelihood that we will eventually become responsible for caring for an aging or chronically ill spouse or parent, is a very real possibility. For many of us, it is something we are not prepared to handle and the added stress can have a detrimental effect on our own health. Researchers have learned a lot about the effects of caregiving on health and wellbeing. For example, if you are between the ages of 66 and 96, are caring for your spouse and are experiencing mental or emotional strain, you have a 63 percent higher risk of dying than other people your age who are not caregivers. The combination of loss, prolonged stress, the physical demands of caregiving, and the biological vulnerabilities that come with age place you at risk for significant health problems, as well as an earlier death.
The risk is just as real for younger caregivers. If you are a baby boomer who is caring for one or both of your parents while juggling work and raising adolescent children, you face an increased risk for depression, chronic illness and a possible decline in quality of life. Not only are many caregivers unaware of the risks to their health as the result of the stress and demands of caregiving, they also are much less likely than non-caregivers to take time for themselves or even keep up with their own necessary preventive healthcare check-ups. In other words, they are so busy caring for everyone else they forget to take care of themselves.
Family caregivers are also at increased risk for depression and excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Caregiving can be an emotional roller coaster. On the one hand, caring for your family member demonstrates love and commitment and can be a very rewarding personal experience. On the other hand, exhaustion, worry, inadequate resources and continuous care demands are enormously stressful. And, caregivers are more likely to have a chronic illness than are non-caregivers, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a tendency to be overweight. Studies show that an estimated 46 percent to 59 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed.
So what’s a caregiver to do?
First, remember it is not selfish to focus on your own needs and desires when you are a caregiver. In fact it’s an important part of the job. First and foremost you are responsible for your own self-care. You are not much good to your loved one, if you fail to take care of yourself.
• Learn and use stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, prayer, yoga, Tai Chi.
• Attend to your own healthcare needs.
• Get proper rest and nutrition.
• Exercise regularly, if only for 10 minutes at a time.
• Take time off without feeling guilty.
• Participate in pleasant, nurturing activities, such as reading a good book, taking a warm bath.
• Seek and accept the support of others.
• Seek supportive counseling when you need it, or talk to a trusted counselor, friend, or pastor.
• Identify and acknowledge your feelings, you have a right to ALL of them.
Caring for a loved one is one of the most selfless things you can do, but make sure you don’t let selflessness become personal neglect. Your loved one would not want your health and wellbeing to suffer because you are caring for them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and give yourself a break, you’ll be a better person and a better caregiver for it.
Take advantage of resources and support that are available for caregivers. One source is AARP. Visit their website at www.aarp.org/home-family/caregiving/. You may also check with your local Medicare office or visit www.medicare.gov/campaigns/caregiver/cargiver.html for resources and services.