In 2015, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving released a major report on caregiving and caregiver stress in the United States. For those providing care to a loved one, these findings won’t be surprising:
- Over 34 million people cared for an adult aged 50 or over in 2015. Fewer than half felt they had a choice in providing care for a loved one.
- About 60% of caregivers are women.
- On average, caregivers spend over 24 hours a week in direct care activities, and over a quarter of them spend 41 hours or more per week providing care.
- In addition to tasks associated with daily living, about 57% of caregivers are doing nursing-level tasks as well, including giving injections, providing catheter and colostomy care, and administering tube feedings, for which they may have had little training or preparation.
- As a result of their caregiving responsibilities, a third felt that their own health had deteriorated over the past year, with most reporting increased levels of physical and financial strain and caregiver stress, as well as a lack of caregiver support.
The report concluded that caregivers “are vulnerable in that they have high levels of emotional stress, physical strain, and worsening health, and are therefore in need of some self-care support.”
I know I’m suffering from caregiver stress, but what can I do?
Flight attendants tell us to put our own oxygen masks on before attempting to help others with theirs; the idea is that you can offer better care for others if your basic needs are met first. The same applies to caregiver well-being. Recognize the warning signs that you’re headed for a possible health crisis yourself, according to the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain or loss
There may be other signs of stress as well; you might want to talk to your doctor if you or your friends or family notice any changes in your health or behavior.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), family caregivers are at increased risk for depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other chronic health conditions. These are noted on the HHS Office of Women’s Health website. If you or your family members notice any warning signs, see your doctor right away. You can also take positive steps to start managing your stress in a healthy way:
- Learn and practice stress-relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation, prayer, or Tai-Chi.
- Get some physical exercise daily; as the Alzheimer’s Association says, even a 10-minute walk can do wonders for your caregiver well-being.
- Schedule time for yourself; visit with friends.
- Join a caregiver support group.
- Nurture yourself daily with activities you enjoy. Reading a book, taking a bubble bath, even sharing coffee with a friend are ways to get nurturing caregiver support.
- Get support when you need it, whether that’s talking with a counselor, clergy member, or friend, or making an appointment with a health-care provider when you feel your caregiver stressis unmanageable.
What if I need help and caregiver support?
This is sometimes the most difficult obstacle for family caregivers to overcome. The HHS Office of Women’s Health recommends that you ask for—and accept—help when you need it, and set limits on the obligations you create for yourself. It’s OK to say no to requests that drain instead of nurture you; let someone else host Thanksgiving dinner this year, for example. Other ways you might try to get the help you need:
- Say “yes” if someone you trust offers to help, and give her a concrete task that matches her skills. If a friend likes to cook, for example, ask her to prepare a meal.
- Keep a list of items you need help with, such as grocery shopping, yard or house work, or errands. Let the “asker” choose the item he’d like to do for you.
- Be direct and don’t water down your request. You’re more likely to get help if you say, “I’d like to go to my granddaughter’s piano recital Thursday morning; can you sit with Dad for a couple of hours?” than “It’s no big deal, just a thought, but it might be nice if you could visit Grandma sometime so I could take a break.”
- Don’t be offended if someone refuses; remember, he or she is rejecting a specific task, not rejecting you. Don’t be afraid to ask again another time. If someone hesitates, offer to let her think about it. A person who cannot help today may be more than happy to help tomorrow or with a different type of task.
Where can I find out more about caregiving and caregiver support?
You may want to learn as much as you can about your loved one’s condition; your health-care provider can put you in touch with community resources and support groups. Organizations such as the Family Caregiver Alliance provide useful information about relieving caregiver stress, finding respite care, and finding local help and support.
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