What Is Caregiving?
At least 43.5 million Americans provide unpaid care for an adult or child, according to a report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Caregiving may involve shopping, housekeeping, providing transportation, feeding, bathing, toilet assistance, dressing, walking, coordinating appointments and medical treatments, or managing a person’s finances. To provide unpaid care is often an act of love and devotion, but it can also be a tremendous drain on one's physical and psychological resources.
Women are much more likely to take on the caregiver role, although many men do it as well. Their patients are loved ones, most often a parent, spouse, or child (of any age) with special medical needs. Caregivers frequently feel on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which can cause great stress and anxiety. Caregivers must pay particular attention to their own needs, or they risk burning out and being of no use to their loved ones. One of the most influential factors in a family’s decision to move an ailing relative to a long-term care facility is the caregiver’s own physical health.
The act of caregiving creates an intimate, two-way relationship between the caregiver and the person needing care, which many family members find deeply emotionally fulfilling, but a body of research finds that most caregivers are unprepared for the demands of the role, and receive little physical or financial support.
More than a third of caregivers provide care to others while experiencing poor health themselves, but often, even as they struggle to meet someone else's daily requirements, they neglect their own health. And those responsible for multiple individuals, such as both aging parents and young children, are most likely put their own health and needs last. For example, research has found that female caregivers are less likely to get mammograms than other women. Caregivers also generally have higher rates of heart disease than others, and a higher mortality rate.
Caregivers and others whose work involves prolonged exposure to other people's trauma can also be vulnerable to compassion fatigue, and can experience symptoms such as exhaustion, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, and stomach upset, as well as irritability, numbness, a decreased sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, and problems with personal relationships. Caregivers are also more likely to be depressed, especially when the person they care for suffers from dementia. Such individuals may secretly self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food.
Balancing the needs of the family and the self is key for caregivers. Experts urge family caregivers to create a plan for maintaining their health, including regular medical checkups and scheduled respite from their roles.