More than one in 10 Americans act as an unpaid caregiver for an older friend or relative. Over the past three decades, thousands of studies have determined that this significant population is at risk of emotional and physical health consequences. In fact, poor caregiver health is one of the top reasons families seek assisted living.
If you care for an aging relative or spouse, be aware of the emotional and physical health consequences. Learn about health and stress concerns for family caregivers and resources to help you balance caregiving with your own well-being.
A day in life as a caregiver: Jim’s story
One morning, Jim Colozzo’s 79-year-old mother woke and couldn’t move her legs. Even though her prognosis was grim, Colozzo opted to bring his mom home instead of placing her in a senior living community. “Do you know what you’re in for?” a doctor asked him.
Colozzo had a pretty good idea. He already lived with his mother and was used to lifting her out of bed and into wheelchairs. However, her sharp decline would increase his caregiving duties significantly. Colozzo knew he’d have to lift his mom throughout the day and help her shower, dress, and use the bathroom.
What he didn’t realize was how much this life as a caregiver would affect his own health.
Mental and physical health effects of caregiver duties
Research shows caregiving can take a serious toll on emotional and physical well-being, leading to chronic conditions and increased depression and anxiety.
Chronic conditions in caregivers
Only four in 10 caregivers would rate their health as “excellent or very good,” according to AARP’s 2020 Caregiving in the U.S. survey. This is a significant drop from the 48% of caregivers who reported very good health in 2015.
This self-reported poor health is backed by medical statistics — 53% of caregivers have been diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disease, or diabetes. That’s 14% higher than the general U.S. adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These chronic conditions contribute to lower caregiver life expectancy.
Caregiver stress and depression
Family members who provide 20 hours of caregiver support or more a week report increased depression and psychological distress, impaired self-care, and worse self-reported health, according to 2018 research conducted by Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Declining health in elderly loved ones directly correlates to heightened caregiver stress levels. For this reason, caregiver stress often increases over time as their relative ages.
Caregiver health statistics
- The vast majority of caregivers report experiencing stress, depression, and emotional problems at least twice a month, according to the CDC. Shockingly, nearly 15% report experiencing these conditions at least 14 days a month.
- Almost 18% report experiencing 14 or more days of poor physical health each month.
- More than half of caregivers say a decline in their health affects their ability to provide care.
- Dementia caregivers report more strain, health problems, and caregiver burnout than non-dementia caregivers.
- Nearly half are concerned about the physical strain that comes with caregiving, and 44% are concerned about the emotional strains, according to a survey from SCAN Health.
The role of caregiver guilt: “I made a promise.”
It’s common for an adult child or spouse to insist on being the sole caregiver for a loved one. This is generally out of a sense of responsibility, or the belief they’ll be able to provide the best care. But when these responsibilities begin to take a toll on the caregiver’s well-being, the effects can be dangerous for everyone.
Caring for his mother at home, Colozzo’s blood pressure rose and his back hurt from constant lifting. One day, he slipped a disc while moving his mom to the toilet.
“I had to put her down fast,” says Colozzo, who felt a sharp, burning pain and couldn’t stand. “She sat on the toilet for two hours until I could find a back brace.”
Colozzo even underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia, fearing he might sleep too soundly after the procedure and miss his mom’s calls for help. But even as his own body fell apart, Colozzo insisted on remaining his mom’s caregiver.
Caregiver obligation statistics
Results of the SCAN survey, a year-long study of 1,000 senior caregivers conducted in 2017, show that caregiving is often associated with guilt:
- 82% of caregivers have difficulty saying “no” to the job.
- 54% feel guilty about taking a break from their caregiver duties to make time for themselves.
- 29% spend 40 hours a week or more caring for someone, leading to lack of sleep and poor professional performance.
- 44% don’t think their loved one would be able to find someone else to provide care.
Who takes care of the caregiver?
Colozzo’s collapse from a slipped disc forced him to consider his own health.
“If I got hurt, I didn’t know who would take care of her,” says Colozzo, who later wrote the book “You Got to Do What You Got to Do” about his caregiving experience. “She wanted to stay at home. I made a promise, and I wanted to keep it.”
For caregivers in a similar situation, asking for help earlier rather than later is key to potentially avoiding emergencies like Colozzo’s. Public awareness around the difficulty of caregiving is increasing, and more resources are becoming available to family caregivers.
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Source: Claire Samuels