Today, more than 1 in 5 Americans (21.3 percent) are unpaid caregivers, having provided care to an adult or child with special needs at some time in the past 12 months. This totals an estimated 53.0 million adults (2020) in the United States, up from the estimated 43.5 million caregivers in 2015.
Plus, with the long-term effects of COVID-19 still plaguing many victims, the number of family members transitioning into a caregiving role will undoubtedly increase drastically in 2021 and beyond.
While there are many positive benefits to caregiving, caregivers can face unique negative personal challenges physically, emotionally, and psychologically. These challenges affect the helper’s overall health and quality of life.
If you are a caregiver, read on to learn more about the role that caregiving plays in your personal well-being. If you are not a caregiver, read on to learn more about those in your social circle who are and how you might be able to help.
The Life Challenges of Caregivers
The caregiving responsibilities of family members have increased over the past two decades. Recent medical advances, increased life spans through better management of chronic illnesses, shorter hospital stays, more advanced home care technology, and a nationwide shortage of home care workers have placed the burden of caregiving on family members for longer periods of time. The physical and emotional demands of long-term caregiving can result in major health impacts on the caregiver.
Informal caregiving also takes a toll on caregivers financially through lost wages and additional medical expenses. A 2016 AARP study revealed that more than 75 percent of caregivers are paying out-of-pocket medical costs with an estimated $7,000 spent on caregiver-related costs per year. Add to that the almost $659,000 in lost income that long-term caregivers lose over a lifetime and the stress multiplies exponentially.
The stress and challenges of informal caregiving have been associated with:
- Higher levels of depression and anxiety
- Increased use of psychoactive medications
- Poorer self-reported physical health
- Compromised immune function
- Increased risk of early death
Poor Self-Care Increases the Cost of Caring
Often, caring for others can exceed the appropriate self-care needed for the caregiver. Taking care of loved ones is an empathetic process. This process can lead to blurred lines between the loved one’s reality and the caregiver’s reality, causing the caregiver to put the loved one’s needs above their own. Neglecting proper self-care can lead to major consequences, like:
Burnout – Caring for others can cause stress to accumulate over time. Poorly managed stress may become a chronic condition called burnout. Burnout makes you feel unable to cope with the stress of caring for others; drained, depleted, or exhausted after a day of caregiving; no longer finding caregiving fulfilling or pleasing; inundated with negative sentiments and cynicism about your work; no longer believing that you are able to accomplish your work obligations.
Compassion Fatigue – a condition characterized by extreme emotional and physical exhaustion that can be caused by caring for others day in and day out. Compassion fatigue usually happens when the helper is exposed to a traumatized individual, absorbing their trauma and emotional stresses, which creates secondary traumatic stress in the helper. A fatigued caregiver can experience symptoms like exhaustion, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, and stomach upset, as well as numbness, irritability, a decreased sense of purpose, and emotional disconnection. Combined with cumulative burnout, the ability of the helper to cope with their everyday environment plummets.
Caregivers need to be willing to shift some of the energy they invest in others into themselves and follow steps to attend to their own care needs.
How to Help a Caregiver
Before you can help a caregiver, you need to take a moment and evaluate what the caregiver might be experiencing.
Many caregivers do not want to be a burden to others, so they may be reluctant to reach out for help. Do not wait for the caregiver to ask – reach out and offer active assistance. You may need to be pushy, in a nice way.
Other caregivers may be experiencing what is known as “anticipatory grief”. They may have a smile on their face, but inside they are grieving in anticipation of their care-receiver continuing to decline and eventually dying. This anticipatory grief is persistent and long-lived, causing these thoughts of grief to always be lurking just under the surface. They are mourning loved ones who are still there.
So how can you help? No Barriers, a nonprofit organization for supporting caregivers, offers the following ways to take care of a caregiver:
1. Share the care!
Offer to help them with some of the things on their “to-do” list. When offering, be explicit in the tasks you’re fit for and want to do; offers of generic “I can help” can often stress out an already-stressed person.
2. Be quick to listen and slow to give advice.
Sometimes people just need to vent and be heard. It can also be hard to give good, solid advice if you don’t have personal experience with the situation therefore sometimes it is best to just listen and empathize.
3. Offer to sit with the care receiver.
Give the caregiver a break so they can do something for themselves. By offering to sit with the care receiver, you take some responsibility off the caregiver’s hands and give them time for themselves—maybe for a nap?!
4. Bring food…
Whether snacks or a whole meal for later, they may not have time to care for themselves and make their own food. You can bring tasty snacks to show caregivers support! Many times, caregivers are working late into the evenings and do not have much time to make healthy, nutritious meals for themselves and their families. Save them time to get other things done and gives them one less thing to do!
5. Take them on a trip to relax.
From a weekend getaway to a beach vacation, a relaxing trip away can help get their mind off work and reconvene. Taking them on a little weekend jaunt is one of the best ways we’ve found on how to help a caregiver.
6. Invite them to things, even if you know they can’t come.
Nothing is worse than feeling left out and even when life is busy, it feels good to know you’re loved and included.
7. Invite them to a workout class with you.
Getting a workout in is proven to boost endorphins and help you feel happier. Why not use your free guest pass on someone who will get more out of the class than a good workout?
8. Run errands for them.
When running your errands, ask if there is anything you can pick up for them to help save them time. Next time you go to the grocery store, text your caregiver friend and say “Hey I’m headed to the grocery store, is there anything I can pick up for you?”
9. Tip: Be specific in your offers.
For example, “I am free tomorrow from 3 pm to 5 pm, can I come over and help do laundry and clean your house?” Help for caregivers can come in all shapes and sizes, but being direct in your availability can lessen their workload of planning and aligning schedules.
10. Always remind them how loved, supported and important they are.
Sometimes when we are completely immersed in supporting others, we forget how much we do and how important we are. Reminding caregivers that they’re loved and valued will help keep them positive and hopeful.
We hope these tips are helpful. If you are looking for even more ways to support caregivers, you can find a list here by the Alzheimer’s Association.
If you are a caregiver, find ways to take some time for yourself and share the care with others. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
If you can help a caregiver, use the above tips and reach out to give the caregiver some relief. You can rest assured that any constructive help you provide will have a huge impact on a caregiver’s life.