Many believe family caregiving comes at a major cost to your health—but the truth isn’t so simple. To be sure, caregiving isn’t an easy job. It is often physically, mentally, emotionally and financially challenging.
But while caregiving’s potential health risks are well documented, more recent studies showing potential health benefits—including lower overall mortality—can offer a more hopeful outlook. If you’re a caregiver, determine what you can do to stay as well as possible in your circumstance. Understanding how caregiving might impact you can help you avoid or reduce the risks and focus more on the transformative potential of providing your loved one with care.
Risks of caregiving
Over the past few decades, public awareness for the burden of caregiving has grown immensely. Researchers have studied many negative effects caregiving can have. These include:
Effects can be temporary, but stay in tune with your health. If you experience unmanageable side effects, seek professional help.
Certain people clearly experience higher risk of one or more of these than others when it comes to caregiving. If you fit into one of these groups, you may want to take extra precautions to counteract the potential risk.
What to do
If you experience negative effects or are in a higher risk group, many well-researched resources and strategies can be found from Mayo Clinic, Stanford Medicine, Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), Cleveland Clinic and Centers for Disease Control. Also check with your disease-specific patient associations.
Some highlights from the aforementioned sources follow.
If you are:
Feeling alone, isolated, under-supported or uninformed.
Build connections through online or in-person support groups. Search for a caregiver network online, such as this one from FCA. Find a group by checking at community centers and faith meeting places. You might even join social groups that have nothing to do with caregiving.
An older, live-in, spousal caregiver—or have given care for many years.
Ask for help when you need it. Use respite care services when you need a break. Ask for help overnight to ensure you get enough sleep. Disease-specific organizations often have great resources for caregiving spouses.
Someone with poor physical or mental health.
Take time to de-stress or to express gratitude. Find social support. Ask for help. Find healthy, safe ways to vent. Take time for yourself. Work on reframing your negative experiences. Watch for warning signs of overstress and depression. Seek professional help when needed.
Experiencing economic strain.
Find services or a group you’re part of that might help with transportation, medication costs, supplemental work income, meal donations, housekeeping—anything that can help alleviate the financial burden. If you’re comfortable asking those you know for help, try creating an online fundraising page. Seek financial advice from reputable sources such as AARP.
Benefits of caregiving
When things get tough, remember: you might not feel it now, but caregiving can enrich your life in many ways.
According to a 2014 survey, 83 percent of caregivers view the experience as positive.
The same study showed 77 percent reported caregiving improved their personal relationship with the person in their care.
Reduced mortality risk
In a census-based study of more than 1.1 million U.K. residents, mortality risk in caregivers was compared to that of non-caregivers. After 33 months, mortality risk was lower for caregivers, even adjusting for hours spent caregiving, health status, marital status and age.
A similar study in the U.S. of about 1,100 women showed the same result. The researchers posited that some negative impact might result from watching a loved one suffer or decline, rather than the act of giving care itself.
A study at Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health found an 18 percent increase in life expectancy among caregivers compared to non-caregivers. The researchers studied information from 3,503 caregivers of chronically ill or disabled family members compared to the same number of statistically similar non-caregivers over a six-year period.
Better memory, physical agility
In a five-year study of caregivers and non-caregivers, the caregivers who reported performing the highest intensity care did the best on physical tasks like grip strength, walking pace and chair-standing speed—while also having the highest amount of stress.
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