With many Americans choosing to put the burden of caring for their aging loved ones on their own shoulders, it is easy to forget how difficult things can be for the caregiver. Choosing to care for an aging loved one is a choice that dramatically alters a person’s life. In the United States, this life-changing choice is all too common—approximately 34.2 million Americans provided unpaid care for an adult age 50 or over in the last 12 months, according to a 2015 Caregiving in the U.S. report from the AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving.
Though caring for a loved one can certainly be rewarding, the life of a caregiver can be stressful. A typical caregiver provides about 20 hours of care every week; about one-quarter provide 41 or more hours, which is especially true of caregivers who were spouses.
Spending so much time caregiving can take away from time normally spent on oneself, and it can even affect job performance and family life. Of a group surveyed, 35% of caregivers said they had difficulty finding time for themselves, and 29% of respondents found it difficult to balance work and family responsibilities.
Managing Money Issues
The inability to strike that balance led, in part, to 37% of caregivers reducing their work hours or even leaving their job entirely. Of course, not being able to work could mean not having enough money to care for a loved one, which can put even more stress on a caregiver. Caregivers contribute an average $5,531 out of pocket towards their caregiving duties, and it is unfortunately difficult for many to get any kind of help to defer the costs.
The federal government provides very little monetary assistance to at-home caregivers—neither Medicare, Medicaid, nor Social Society provide payment for family caregivers. The one government organization that does provide some form of compensation is the Department of Veterans Affairs, provided the one requiring care is eligible.
New government budgets may affect caregivers and their loved ones, but there are also state Medicaid programs that can provide some form of payment as well. It is important to check with your state’s government website to see how they may be able to help.
Mental and Physical Health of a Caregiver
With all the stress that family caregivers experience in balancing money and time—not to mention the health of their loved ones—what is often overlooked, ironically, is their own health. Over half of caregivers saw their health decline while being providing for the needs of a family member, which, in turn, limited their abilities to provide care.
Putting a loved one’s needs over their own may seem like the right thing to do for a caregiver, but it can actually be the opposite—there is a reason that airlines ask you to put your oxygen mask on before assisting someone else. A caregiver has to be on the top of his or her game in order to provide for the needs of their dependent. The key to a healthy lifestyle as a caregiver is managing stress and burnout.
One way to do this is to occasionally take a short break from caregiving. This may seem impossible at first, but it starts with just a question: “Can you take over?”. A caregiver can ask a sibling or a friend of the loved one to step in for them from time to time, whether it be just for a weekend or even for a night. Family and friends understand how hard it is to be a caregiver; they often do not mind helping out if it means an occasional break. If a caregiver finds it difficult to discuss this subject with a sibling, there are elder mediators who can step in and help. Establishing a network of help can take a hefty load off a primary caregiver’s shoulder.
Caregivers should also talk with friends and family about the stress they may be experiencing in their lives due to their new role. Sharing the emotional load is just as important as sharing the actual caregiving tasks. If talking about your stress with loved ones is not enough, you should not be afraid to speak with someone professionally or join a support group. There are millions of Americans in the same position, so a caregiver should never feel like he or she is alone.
Physical health is just as important. Caregivers should leave some time for exercise every day, even if it is just a jog around the neighborhood, eat a healthy balanced diet, and get plenty of sleep—they need all the energy they can get to balance their caregiving duties with their life duties. Lack of sleep and a poor diet can also lead to depression, so caregivers should schedule regular check-ups and tell their physician what is going on in their life.
Taking on the responsibility of being a caregiver for a loved one is a difficult but sometimes necessary choice—but family caregivers cannot forget about caring for themselves, and they cannot be afraid to reach out for help from a support system in their own time of need.