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The Role of the Caregiver: What Does it Mean for Your Health?

Caring for an ailing loved one can bring incredible rewards—both physical and emotional.

It can ignite all sorts of positive emotions, from compassion to satisfaction to “a vicarious happiness at being able to help,” says psychologist Michael J. Poulin. It can also help strengthen the caregiver’s physical and cognitive performance as they age themselves.

In fact, more than eight in 10 caregivers report the experience as positive overall.

“Many family caregivers report positive experiences from caregiving, including a sense of giving back to someone who has cared for them, the satisfaction of knowing that their loved one is getting excellent care, personal growth and increased meaning and purpose in one’s life,” says the American Psychological Association.

“Some caregivers feel that they are passing on a tradition of care and that by modeling caregiving, their children will be more likely care for them if necessary.”

But the role isn’t without its struggles, which can take their toll on the caregiver’s own health. Because most of the people in this role are women, dealing with caregiver stress has emerged as an important part of women’s care. Doctors are seeing an increasing number of women whose health has been depleted by the challenges of caregiving.

What Is Caregiver Stress?

For most caregivers, the day-to-day tasks they perform for an ailing loved on are piled on top of an already busy schedule—which can lead to feelings of stress, depression and overwhelm.

At least 19 percent of U.S. adults provide unpaid care for the elderly in their lives—and as Baby Boomers continue to age, that number is expected to grow. Many caregivers are aging themselves; among adults 50-61 years old, roughly a third are family caregivers helping a:

  • Parent: 20 percent
  • Grandchild: 15 percent
  • Spouse: 4 percent

Most of these caregivers are women. Three-fourths have jobs on top of their caregiving duties, and many still have children at home.

“Trying to hold onto a job while caring for a family member is a tough juggling act,” says author Paula Span. “Caregivers sometimes have to arrive late or leave early, cut back to part-time work, and decline travel or promotions.”

Seven in 10 caregivers end up changing their work schedules to accommodate their other duties—going in late, leaving early or taking time off during the day—while nearly 20 percent take a leave of absence. Some end up leaving the workforce entirely.

Feeling pulled in so many directions often leaves caregivers feeling stressed, can manifest in a variety of ways. More than half struggle to find enough time for friends and other family members, and one in 10 report financial hardships. Overall, one in six report that caregiving has caused their health to decline.

How to Manage Caregiver Stress

Caregiving typically gets harder and more complex as you go, so it’s important to bolster your support system now, says social worker Barbara Moscowitz. “Support groups and community resources are like having a first aid kit. It’s going to feel like even more of a burden, and you need to be armed.”

To help minimize the impact on your health, women’s care doctors recommend the following strategies:

Seek out for community resources. Most communities offer a host of helpful services such as hotlines, senior centers, day programs and meals on wheels, which can help take the stress off caregivers.

Join a support group. Caregivers often feel isolated and may struggle with feelings of frustration, resentment or guilt. A support group provides a safe place to express these emotions as well as learn how others cope.

Take time off. It may seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but self-care becomes more important than ever when you’re caring for others. Regularly taking some time for yourself can go a long way toward managing caregiver stress. Maintain the daily practices that help keep you balanced, such as meditating or taking walks.

Enlist backup. Even if you’re the primary caregiver, that doesn’t mean other relatives can’t pitch in. Work with family members to create a plan together. When friends and neighbors offer to help, take them up on it.

Caregiving doesn’t have to deplete your health. For more information on how to cope with caregiver stress, consult a women’s care doctor.

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