One in five of Americans provides unpaid care to a child or adult with health problems or special needs. We care for our parents, spouses, kids, grandparents, other relatives, friends and neighbors.
The number of unpaid caregivers—including child caregivers—has risen over the past five years. Surveys show that the people we care for have increasingly complicated needs. More of us provide care for more than one person, and more of us struggle to coordinate care.
So it’s no surprise that nearly a quarter of us say that being a caregiver has taken a toll on both our physical and mental health.
The Costs of Caregiving
Caregiving is often hard work that involves sacrifice of varying degrees. The strain is more pronounced if you are an older caregiver with limited means or support networks than a younger caregiver or someone with more resources. It can be more difficult to care for someone with dementia, someone who requires a lot of supervision, someone less able to express gratitude, or someone who is depressed.
Even with support, caregiving can mean saying goodbye to parts of your life as you take on the following challenges:
Less time. Whether you provide care in or outside your home, caregiving means less time for your job and other family members. If your loved one is in another city or state, that means even more time away from your day-to-day responsibilities as you travel and arrange for extra help when you can’t be there.
More stress. Caregiving can put a strain on relationships, either with the person you care for or with your family, friends and workplace. Caring for a parent can mean a stressful reversal of the parent-child relationship; caring for a child can mean less attention for your other children, who may resent your physical or emotional absence. Caregiving is more stressful when you:
- Live with the person you’re caring for, resulting in little to no downtime.
- Were depressed or had a hard time coping before you began caregiving.
- Feel forced into the job.
- Care for someone with dementia.
- Lack support with caregiving duties or support from your family members.
Reduced income. About 45% of caregivers report suffering from the financial impact of caregiving. Caregiving.org reports: “One in 5 caregivers report high financial strain as a result of caregiving…. Most commonly, 3 in 10 have stopped saving… and 1 in 4 have taken on more debt… which could have longer-term repercussions on caregivers’ financial security into the future, especially if the caregiving situation lasts a long time.”
Greater isolation. Caregiving can be a lonely job. About 20% of caregivers report feeling alone. Time away from family and friends, and long hours alone with the person you’re caring for, can have adverse psychological effects.
Frustrating circumstances. Healthcare in the United States is a patchwork of systems, services and settings; that goes double for long-term support services for caregivers. Cost for services is often prohibitive; finding affordable services and managing them can become a part-time job in itself.
“Caregiving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability, has the capacity to create secondary stress in multiple life domains such as work and family relationships, and frequently requires high levels of vigilance.”Schulz and Sherwood, 2009
How Caregiving Affects the Caregiver
More time spent on other people means less time for yourself. Caregivers often get less sleep and less exercise, don’t eat as well, don’t rest when they’re tired and don’t stay in bed when they’re sick. As caregivers spend more energy on other people’s health, they spend less on their own, to the extent of putting off doctors’ appointments and medical procedures.
Nearly two thirds of caregivers work, and two thirds of those report that caregiving affects their work. Half of working caregivers must make room for caregiving by going in late or leaving early from work. Solutions also include early retirement or quitting, which can cause financial stress.
Given the amount of stress and fatigue involved, it’s not surprising when caregiving affects mental health. Emotional resilience is tested if not lowered. Studies show that anywhere from 20% to 60% of caregivers suffer from depression. Caregivers are at risk of increased alcohol use to cope with the demands of caregiving.
Anxiety plays a role as well. Caregiving is unpredictable—it’s challenging enough to put care systems in place, but when your loved one’s health deteriorates, additional care or new systems must be researched, found and arranged. Constant change can contribute to anxiety, as well as feeling like you’re losing out on life, figuring out how to pay for services or survive on less income, or wondering how long your partner or family can hang on without you.
It’s easy to get so involved in caregiving that you forget to think about yourself. You may not realize when you are approaching burnout. Look for these warning signs:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sleep disruptions
- Being quick to anger
- Physical symptoms such as pain, weight gain and headaches
Caring for the Caregiver
It can be hard to make time for self-care, but with a high-stress job like caregiving, it’s necessary. Take breaks. Make time for a walk or exercise—even a 20-minute walk around the block is better than nothing. Talk with friends and other caregivers or join a support group. Think about what will nurture YOU and bring your stress level down:
- Enlist others to help; keep a list of things you could use help with. When someone says, “If there’s anything I can do…” let them pick something from the list.
- Make a grocery list with healthy foods; eating “whatever” will sabotage your energy levels and health. Keep healthy treats on hand for yourself; even a bottle of “special” water can give you a lift.
- Practice meditation, yoga or mindfulness techniques.
- Rest as regularly as you can.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling; tamping down feelings can encourage emotional “explosions.”
Investigate community resources that could lighten your load (see Resources below), or schedule day care or home health care. Learn to pace yourself and say No to unnecessary duties. Set up communication channels with other responsible parties, like your siblings, so they know how to step in if you have an emergency.
There are many positive effects of caregiving: being needed, doing something meaningful for someone you care about, and strengthening your relationship with others. But when caregiving becomes a burden that causes you unmanageable sadness or stress, recognize that you’re allowed to ask for help. Best Day’s counselors are ready to help you assess your situation and address self-care and mental health challenges so you can live a healthy, integrated, full life.
Resources for Caregivers
Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:
Charlotte: (980) 867-4440• Durham: (919) 659-8686 • Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543
Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684 • Greenville: (252) 375-3322 • Raleigh: (919) 670-3939
Wilmington: (910) 500-7072 • Winston-Salem: (336) 934-5556