Over 40 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone with a serious health condition each year. And that care quickly runs up a tally both in number of hours and economic value. In the United States alone, the amount of unpaid care provided to children, the elderly and the ill was valued at over $3 trillion dollars, with women providing far more than the lion’s share of that care. While caregiving is a noble act and can be quite rewarding, caregivers can easily neglect their own needs and health – an issue that the National Institutes of Health has researched “to better understand the risks these caregivers face.” National Family Caregivers Month is an opportunity to promote the importance of self-care while coping with caregiving and the responsibilities it entails.
Recognizing the invisible workforce
Given the number of Americans providing care, it’s likely that you know someone who has served as a caregiver and/or that you have served as one yourself. You may need the support and strategies of a caregiver to help you as you face an illness, an injury or advancing age one day.
Cooking meals, making grocery and prescription trips, bathing, dressing, paying bills, managing doctor’s office appointments and many other tasks can fall under the responsibility of an unpaid caregiver. A lot of planning and times goes into this “invisible work” by an unpaid workforce who need support and strategies of their own that recognize them as part of patients’ healthcare team.
Navigating the challenges of caregiving
Providing care to a family member or loved ones is a noble act, but it can also be overwhelming – especially if you are providing it with little to no training and little to no support. As a caregiver, it’s likely you will face challenges such as:
“One study found that as many as 1 in 3 caregivers rate their stress level as high, and half say they have less time to spend with family and friends.”
“Nearly 4 in 10 family caregivers of adults report experiencing financial strain as a result of providing care.”
“22% of caregivers report that their health has gotten worse as a result of caregiving.”
“Estimates show that between 40% to 70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, with approximately one quarter to one half of these caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression.”
“Caregivers report they do not go to the doctor because they put their family’s needs first (67% said that is a major reason), or they put the care recipient’s needs over their own (57%).”
“Research shows that female caregivers (who comprise about 2/3 of all unpaid caregivers) fare worse than their male counterparts, reporting higher levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms and lower levels of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and physical health than male caregivers.”
As a caregiver, you are likely expected to take on challenges such as:
- Understanding new medical information
- Learning new illness-related terminology
- Navigating new treatment settings
- Changing your schedule to take your family member to medical appointments
- Managing tasks such as case management, management of insurance claims and bill payment
- Completing daily tasks such as running personal errands, grocery shopping and cooking, cleaning and other housekeeping tasks
- Navigating health delivery and support systems
- Providing companionship
Lack of personal time
“Caregivers providing substantial help were more than 5 times as likely to report that their care duties interfered with valued activities, such as visiting friends and attending religious services.”
“Caregivers report having difficulty finding time for themselves (35%), managing emotional and physical stress (29%), and balancing work and family responsibilities (29%).”
Support and strategies for caregivers
Self-care is an imperative. Think of it as if you’re on an airplane: if the oxygen masks come down in front of you, whose do you put on first and why? We have to take care of ourselves first if we want to help others and if we want to persevere. Here are some self-care strategies you can adopt today:
Make your health and wellness a priority
You can’t change the diagnosis of the family member you provide care for, but you can take responsibility for your own health and wellness and take steps each day to ensure your needs are met. It may be a habit to ignore your own needs, but as a caregiver it’s important to identify that habit and break it. After all, how will you be able to provide care to someone else if you are in the habit of not providing care to yourself?
Push negative thoughts that get in the way of good self-care out of your mind. Instead of focusing on the stress of caregiving, focus on what you do well and what you accomplish. Did you provide nutritious meals to your family member today? Were you able to squeeze in 30 minutes of time to read or workout? Did you make your family member smile today? Pat yourself on the back for those things.
It’s often difficult – or even impossible – to avoid stress as a caregiver. Your duties may be involuntary, you may struggle with coping with the tasks asked of you, you may be providing care in the hopes of mending a broken relationship and/or you may have little to no support. But you can take steps to better manage stress and even reduce it:
- Recognize stress early. You may feel irritable, you may have trouble sleeping and/or you may experience forgetfulness. Recognize your personal warning signs and be prepared to act before you’re overwhelmed.
- Identify what stresses you. You likely have too much on your plate, you may feel as if you have to mediate family disagreements and/or you may feel inadequate in your caregiving abilities. Consider where your stress comes from so you can be ready to face it head on.
- Identify what you can and cannot change. We can only change ourselves, but we cannot change other people. That’s a lesson we learn and relearn throughout our lives inside and outside of our capacity as a caregiver. Avoid frustrating yourself by focusing on changes – even small ones – you can make to improve your mood.
- Be prepared to take action. When we act in our best interest to reduce stress, we get back a sense of control. Take a walk, read a book, go have a drink with friends, meditate, say no, spend time in your garden or hit the gym. Make time for activities that help you relax and regain control of how you feel and how you respond to the world.
Set actionable goals
Think about what you would like to accomplish for yourself in the next 3 to 6 months. That might mean taking a break from providing care, having more support and resources as a caregiver or having more time for your personal life or to explore new hobbies. Once you decide what you want to accomplish, consider the steps you need to take to make it happen. That may mean asking for help, so be ready to do so (and don’t feel bad about that!).
Communicate and ask for help
It’s vital to your family member that you are able to communicate with the healthcare team in place as well as support systems and other people who may help you manage household or administrative tasks. But it’s just as vital for your own self-care that you feel comfortable communicating on your own behalf – including when that means asking for help and saying no. Be assertive, clear and constructive. Use “I” statements to express yourself and to show that you are taking action. Listen, but don’t allow your requests to be ignored. Be prepared with specifics when you ask for help, and don’t feel as if you’re a burden for making those requests. Be ready for hesitation or refusal, but don’t weaken your requests.
What tips do you have to help caregivers feel more supported and appreciated?
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