Husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and others are taking on the role of caregiver for family members who are unable to care for themselves due to disabilities, chronic health conditions or the challenges related to aging. In fact, more than 90 million caregivers – two out of five adults – are now providing that daily care, an increase of 30% since 2010. But who is taking care of the caregivers?
"Caregiving is demanding work and it can be extremely exhausting – physically, mentally and emotionally," says Monique Tremaine, PH.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology services at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation (www.kessler-rehab.com). "Many caregivers have little down-time, may not get adequate rest and don't eat as well as they should. Unfortunately, this can lead to a number of health problems."
Although women have traditionally assumed the role of caregiver, today that is changing: approximately 40% of caregivers are women and 37% are men. A staggering 36% of younger Americans between ages 18-29 are family caregivers, including one million young people who care for loved ones with Alzheimer's disease. This translates to an estimated $450 billion of unpaid services rendered each year.
"Given the scope of their work – bathing, dressing, feeding, giving medications, scheduling doctor appointments and more – combined with other family, household or career demands, it's understandable that caregivers become overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful, despite their love for the individual. That, in turn, can lead to feelings of guilt and depression, and put the caregiver at greater risk for injury or illness," explains Tremaine.
There are ways to minimize stress and avoid what is commonly called caregiver burnout. According to Kimberly Hreha, OTR, stroke clinical research coordinator at Kessler Institute, "Caregivers need to take care of themselves so that they can take care of others. They need to understand that they may not be able to 'do it all.' Rather they need to accept the fact that they are doing the best they can and learn to prioritize."
To help caregivers cope with the challenges they face and be aware of their own needs, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, one of the nation's leading hospitals for the care and treatment of individuals with stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, neurological diseases, amputation and orthopedic trauma, offers the following recommendations:
- Seek support. Hospitals, social services agencies, and community and religious organizations offer a wide range of programs and resources. Many offer local support groups as well as meal programs, transportation and other assistance that can help ease the burden of care.
- Get connected. In addition, there are now many online groups and mobile apps that can connect people facing similar circumstances, offer ways to manage needs, and provide other resources, strategies and support.
- Keep in touch. It's important to maintain relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and others in their community. A friendly phone call, a shared joke, or a brief text message can go a long way to lifting your spirits.
- Ask for help. Don't be afraid to reach out and ask for assistance. Family, friends and others are often willing to help, but may be unsure of what they can do.
- Exercise… and eat well. Even if you can't get to the gym, talking a walk, doing yoga or exercising to a DVD or mobile app can help to reduce stress, improve your health and feel more energized. And be sure to follow a healthy diet. All too often, caregivers fail to eat properly, which leads to weight gain or loss, higher cholesterol levels and other problems.
- Get some rest! A lack of sleep can lead to serious physical, psychological and cognitive issues – from falls to forgetfulness. Give your body the time it needs to rest and re-charge.
- Create some "me" time. Don't overlook your own needs and interests. Make arrangements to get a haircut, go to a movie, or simply to have some personal time to pursue hobbies or activities you enjoy, such as reading, crafts or gardening
- Be patient with yourself. Being a caregiver is an enormous responsibility and a role that few people are prepared for. Over time, you will learn how to manage this role. You will figure out what works for you and your loved one, as well as for your family. And you will understand the reward that comes from doing the best you can to help an important person in your life.
Ten Warning Signs of Caregiver Stress:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Feelings of anger, resentment and guilt
- Loss of interest in things that were once pleasurable
- Aches, pains, headaches, physical discomfort
- Gaining or losing weight
- Constant worry and fear about the future
- Lack of concentration
- Irritability, moodiness
Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation