- About one out of five adults is a caregiver to a loved one.
- Caregiving can have a significant impact on the mental and physical life of the caregiver.
- Creating a caregiver's self-plan can help balance well-being.
A caregiver is a person who lives with a loved one who needs intensive, tailored and unique physical, emotional, nutritional and social support.
A caregiver may be a young adult or an older adult, who spends time with their loved one, monitors their medication and physical needs, provides meals, socialization and other daily living needs. Being a caretaker to a loved one has become a more common experience for people all over the world, regardless of language, culture or country. In the United States alone, about 21% of the population — or 55 million people — are caregivers to a loved one in their family, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
A substantial body of research shows that family members who provide daily care to a loved one struggle with their own emotional, mental, and physical health issues. The sacrifice that's made to love and care for their child, spouse or parent sets into motion a complex way of living that is exceedingly challenging. The reason this happens is that, often, the self-care of the caregiver is set aside, postponed or placed lower on the priority list because so much has to be done in a day for their loved one.
- 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 struggle with loss of self identity, lower levels of self esteem, constant worry, or feelings of uncertainty and helplessness.
- More than one-fifth of caregivers are exhausted when they go to bed at night, and many feel they cannot handle all their caregiving responsibilities.
- Caregivers who experience chronic stress may be at greater risk for cognitive decline including loss of short-term memory, attention and verbal language.
Nearly 4 in 10 caregivers consider their caregiving situation to be highly stressful.
- Caregivers with poorer health, or with fewer financial resources, are at extreme risk for compromised physical health.
- The average duration of caregiving is 4.5 years, but long-term caregivers are at higher risk for caregiver burnout or extreme compassion fatigue.
Creating a Self-Care Plan
One of the best ways caregivers can strengthen their own well-being is to develop what's called a Caregiver's Self Plan: an outline of rules and reminders to help balance life as a caregiver and as a person who has needs too.
1. Understand that asking for help is normal. Individuals who care for someone else can, and should, ask people for additional help. Being able to delegate care should be normalized and never viewed as a failure or weakness on the caregiver's part. Studies show that caregivers need to take a break from caregiving, and must build in days off and weeks off - and vacations too.
2. Identify the help you need: Target exactly what kind of help or assistance you need. Can you delegate other family members to help out? Can you access community or local programs to help provide support, like Meals on Wheels, senior centers, or ambulatory transportation? Might insurance coverage provide physical therapy, visiting nurse services or other check-ins that can help you manage your loved one's health? Do you have any wiggle room in your budget to hire a certified aide to give you some free time to rest, refuel or have an afternoon or evening out?
3. Investigate resources in your community. Reaching out to community, religious, or state programs can help you find resources. Many towns and counties offer medical health information and support systems in the area that you may not be aware of. Local activities, educational classes and volunteer organizations may also be able to provide social experiences for caregivers and loved ones.
4. Find meaning in caregiving. Studies show that caregivers who find meaning and purpose in their caregiving have greater well-being. So, honor the commitment you've made and make sure to take a moment to reflect on your role in this nurturing relationship.
5. Talk and share. Science also reveals that caregivers who talk about their caregiving experiences report higher levels of well-being. So, make sure you share with a trusted loved one or friend about your struggles, stresses and even stories of joy and meaning as a caregiver. Consider joining an in-person or virtual caregiver support group. Or if you feel overwhelmed as a caregiver, mental health professionals can help you balance life, self-care and your role as a caregiver to a loved one.