January 6, 2012

by: Renee Canfield

Caring for the Caregiver

Chances are that if you are a parent or member of a family, you often carry out your family responsibilities automatically as a matter of course.  Keeping up the pace while juggling the many facets of life—Job, kids, parents, pets, caring for your home, connecting with your partner, maintaining friendships—can often be challenging for all of us. This can become even more complicated if you have a child or family member with a disability that requires more time consuming caregiving.  Many of you connected to UCP are in a significant caregiver role, and though you may not realize it, providing ongoing care to someone you love —whether for a child or adult family member, takes a huge toll, both physically and emotionally.  When was the last time you stopped to think about yourself?  “Caregivers often don’t see themselves as being in a difficult situation,” says Richard Schulz, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the health effects of caregiving. “They know they are stressed, but they don’t recognize the link between caregiving stresses and what they experience.” Chances are, however, that even as you are caring for the health and wellbeing of your loved one, your health is suffering.

The stress of caregiving results in any number of long-term health effects for the family caregiver. These include:  Infectious diseases: Stress causes a cascade of physiological changes that weaken our immune system and, consequently, our overall health.  This translates to a higher occurrence of infections and illnesses, putting caregivers at a greater risk for everything from colds and influenza to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. 

Depression: Family caregivers suffer from the symptoms of this condition at more than twice the rate of the general population.   However, many of those caregivers with the most severe cases of depression don’t recognize the typical symptoms of the condition in themselves, believing instead that their fatigue or loss of energy, irritability or agitation and difficulty sleeping or concentrating are just part of being a family caregiver.  Therefore, they don’t seek help. Depressive symptoms are debilitating, and the disease itself is a risk factor for the chronic conditions noted above. 

Sleep deprivation: This one will make any parent or caregiver laugh.  Who isn’t sleep deprived?!  However, a host of studies demonstrate that sleep deprivation is rampant in caregivers.  A lack of shuteye can impair your ability to concentrate and perform at your job and also heightens your risk of a variety of major illnesses, heart disease and obesity.  

Higher mortality rate: Research has also found that elderly caregivers who had experienced strain had a 63 percent higher risk of death compared to study participants who were not providing care to a family member.  

So all of this doom and gloom is not to make you feel worse, but to drive home the case that to be a good caregiver, one must first embrace self-care.  It is easier said than done, of course, but step one is to remind yourself constantly that self-care is a necessity, NOT a luxury.  Make room for some healthful activities and reach out for help to lessen your load.  Start by getting exercise, eating right and having your own medical checkups on a regular basis. 

This month we will be focusing on the caregiver—your experiences, tools to make things easier and tips on taking care of yourself as well as you take care of your loved ones.  Please feel free to join the discussion and share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section of the blog or on Facebook this month. 


Some information for this article was taken from TAKE CARE! Self-Care for the Family Caregiver, a publication of the National Family Caregivers Association, www.thefamilycaregiver.org.

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