If you are a caregiver, you know who you are: Your days are filled with balancing work, the needs of your own family, and caregiving responsibilities. There's no doubt this juggling act takes its toll on you. That's why it's so important to recognize when you're stressed and to do something about it. Remember, if you don't care take of yourself, you can't take care of someone you love.
In this column, I'm excited to share the top findings from a new report, "Caregiving in the U.S. 2009" issued by the National Alliance for Caregiving, in collaboration with AARP and with funding from the MetLife Foundation. The analysis—based on survey data from more than 1,450 respondents—paints a detailed picture of caregivers by showing:
- Who caregivers are
- To whom they are providing assistance
- What caregivers do in their unpaid roles
- The impacts of caregiving responsibilities on a person's personal and professional lives
Below, I also offer tips on how caregivers can deal with the stress they feel from caring for a loved one and how others can support family, friends, and neighbors who are providing caregiving assistance.
The Average Caregiver's Profile
"Caregiving in the U.S. 2009" estimates that 43.5 million people age 18 and older are providing unpaid care for others age 50+. That number amounts to 19 percent of all American adults!
The profile of the average caregiver is a 50-year-old female taking care of a 77-year-old woman, usually her mother. This profile is somewhat different when we look at ethnic groups. The average African-American caregiver is a slightly younger female, age 48, taking care of a 74-year-old woman; for Hispanics, the average age is an even younger female, age 43, taking care of a 74-year-old woman. On average, all caregivers spend approximately four years providing assistance to their loved ones.
People need caregiving assistance for all sorts of reasons. As people get older, they often require help with basic daily tasks, such as getting dressed, eating, bathing, or getting in and out of beds or chairs. What's also important, recipients need help keeping their households going, doing chores around the house, grocery shopping, paying the bills, and getting to doctor's appointments. Finally, older loved ones can often use assistance to keep up their relationships by visiting their friends.
Older adults take an average of five medicines daily, and 96 percent of all caregivers ensure that their loved ones take the proper medicine, at the correct dosage, at the right time of day.
"Caregiving in the U.S. 2009" also reveals that most care recipients live in suburbs. However, for both African Americans and Hispanics, their principal residence is in a city. Although each caring relationship is geographically unique, more than half of all caregivers live within 20 minutes of their loved ones.
The Stresses of Caregiving
Make no mistake about it: Caregiving is hard. You love your family member, but leaving the office after a full day to help Mom or Dad, and then going home to take care of your family, can be exhausting. Three of four caregivers work full-time while providing an average of 20 hours per week of assistance. Let's face it—caregiving is a demanding part-time job!
Four in 10 caregivers feel as though they did not have a choice in taking on the caregiver role. Family dynamics can be complicated, and with family members spread around the country, the primary responsibility often falls to the adult child who lives nearest.
Stresses of caregiving are significant; remember that 75 percent of caregivers are also employed. Seven in 10 of those make accommodations in their work schedules to fulfill their caregiving duties. Some go in late, leave early, or take time off during the day. Almost one in five takes a leave of absence, and some caregivers have to leave the workforce entirely so that they can provide care for a loved one.
Stress shows up in many ways. One in six people report that caregiving has made their health worse. More than half note that they have less time for friends and their own family members. Add into the mix that caregivers often pay out-of-pocket for goods and services provided to their loved ones, and it is easy to understand why one in 10 report that the financial hardships of caregiving are high. In fact, only four in 10 caregivers said that they got paid help during last 12 months (either from a housekeeper, in-home health aide, or some other assistant), because professional services are so costly.
Tips to Help Caregivers
Providing caregiving support can be demanding, so here are tips to reduce the stress that many caregivers experience:
Talk with your office:
- Let your manager or supervisor know about your caregiving demands. It's better that he or she hears from you why you're coming in late or seem preoccupied.
- Find out your company's policy toward caregivers and whether your employer offers benefits that could help. Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Program, which could give you advice and direction. Your employer also may let you develop your own flextime schedule.
Don't do it all alone; get help!
Caregivers who get help are less likely to burn out and are better able to provide long-term support to their parents.
- Engage your family: Have a talk with your siblings to make a plan.
- Identify which family members can do what. (Maybe a sibling who works full-time can serve as a medical liaison, or a wealthier sibling can fund the cost of a home-health aide or someone to clean a parent's home. Maybe a geographically distant sibling can volunteer to handle finances.)
- Tap into community services. It often takes work to find the most effective help for your situation.
- If you live far away from a loved one, you might want to ask a geriatric care manager to locate services that are close to your parent.
- If your loved one has been hospitalized, arrange some time with a hospital social worker or hospital discharge planner to discuss next steps.
- Check to see how an Area Agency on Aging, faith-based services, or your local department of social services can help.
- Remember to ask friends and co-workers for advice. They may have encountered similar situations and have some valuable advice.
- When friends and neighbors ask if there is anything they can do to help, let them help you—maybe they can take over your day for the carpool, take your car in for service, or invite you over for supper.
Care for yourself—physically, emotionally and mentally
- Eat properly
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Take breaks to do something that diverts your attention in a way that eases stress. Meditate, work out, read, take up a hobby, see a movie.
- Find someone to talk to about your caregiving challenges, such as a support group.
- Get a little hands-on care yourself: a shampoo, a manicure, or even just a spa-day at home.
- Keep your own medical appointments for check-ups.
The Future of Caregiving
The role of caregiving is increasingly falling on the boomer generation. Its members' aging parents require more and more help as chronic health conditions emerge and require attention. But active boomer lifestyles—having children later in life, changing jobs more frequently, and often changing geographic locations to take those new jobs—can make it difficult to add caregiving into the mix.
We care for our loved ones exactly because of our emotional attachment to them. We often don't stop to think of our actions as caregiving. Instead, we think of it as family taking care of family, friends taking care of friends. While that is what it is, I urge you to take time and consider the toll that it could be taking on you. Review the tips I've outlined to see if there is anything you can do to reduce your stress.
As so many things are, caregiving is a question of balance. Only you know what the proper balance should be. Too often we get caught up in the moment and don't stand back to reflect on how things could be made better. I hope that the report findings I've summarized for you convince you that you are not alone. Caregiving is a vital but unpaid and stressful service that many of us provide today.
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