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Protecting caregiver health: when the caregiver's health fails the care system can collapse

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Think of it like this: Caregivers are the base of a pyramid. When the base collapses, the whole pyramid crashes. Many of us are "natural caregivers." We put other people's needs ahead of our own. It feels good to give. However, everyone has a breaking point. Whether it's physical, mental, emotional, spiritual - or more likely a combination of all of these - if the caregiver breaks down, the whole care system can collapse. Caregiver self-care is vital to all involved.

Cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems can sneak up on a caregiver who doesn't keep his or her own medical appointments, leading to medical bills, disability and sometimes death. Even the most loving caregiver is bound to suffer stressful times trying to fulfill all the roles required of him or her. Stress hormones produced by the caregiver's body during these times can be a cause of the above diseases and others.

Add in the fact that emotional eating often leads to junk food habits and weight gain, putting the caregiver at even greater risk. New statistics come to light daily. A recent ABC News series, The Shriver Report, headed by Maria Shriver, is packed with statistics and information on new research. The report also stresses how far we have to travel to stop this threat to individual health, as well our national solvency.

Much of the report centers on caregivers and the incredible toll taking care of an Alzheimer's patient takes on a caregiver. One point indicates that caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease are six times more likely than the general population to get the disease. Another strong point made in the segment Living With Alzheimer's: Role of Caregiver is that 40 percent of the caregivers interviewed reported the "highest level of stress," which can lead to depression.

Our own survey showed caregiver stress and burnout to be the number one problem for those taking the survey. This survey led me to write several articles on the subject, including Respite Care Key to Many Caregiver's Mental Health, Caregivers Should Ward Off Burnout and Depression with Meaningful Time Off and Depression, Suicidal Thoughts Affect Some Caregivers. These articles stress the need for outside help before a caregiver reaches the end of her or his rope emotionally, or becomes so ill physically that caregiving is then out of the question.

Respite Care for Caregiver Breaks Can be Lifelines to Health

Most elders resist the idea of caregivers from "outside," at first mention. Many caregivers, themselves, resist this help as well. We want to be able to care for our loved ones ourselves. "We take care of our own," is often the slogan a family starts out with.

That's commendable. We say, "Our parents did it and we will, too." That's also commendable. However, decades ago, there was often someone, usually a wife, at home all day with the kids. The aging parents then would move in with the family and the caregiving continued.

Times Have Changed

That's a great concept, one I grew up with. My grandma lived with us for years. However, this is not the reality for most of us, today. Most women are working outside of the home, the majority of them from financial necessity. Also, while "aging parents," awhile back, were often in their sixties, and many wouldn't live through a stroke only to develop vascular dementia, today it's different. Today, our aging parents are in their seventies, eighties and nineties, and often living with many health issues. Caregivers themselves are often in their sixties and beyond. People can live for decades in a situation where at one time they would have been called an "invalid."

This isn't the 1950s or 1960s anymore. In 2010, we deal with families scattered the world over, far more single parents than ever, and households where no one is home during the day. Add an eighty-year-old parent with Alzheimer's to the mix, and what do we do?

It's not that we don't love our parents as much as they loved their parents. We are just faced with a different type of reality. This reality means that many people must cut back on work hours, or quit altogether, in order to care for an aging parent. Many companies are not good about letting people take time off for a parent's medical needs (I needed to use all of my vacation time to take my family members to doctor appointments).

Cutting back on work hours and/or quitting one's job are obvious roads to financial problems. Medical bills for the elder pile up. All of these pressures add up to a very stressful life. Will you be adding your own medical bills for your stress related illnesses to the mix?

Self-care Isn't a Luxury

  • Caregivers often feel guilty about any steps they take toward self-care. That mindset must change. Taking care of the caregiver isn't a luxury. It's a necessity so the whole family can survive. Don't wait until you get sick. If you can't drop the guilt about getting help with your caregiving, please talk it through with a spiritual leader or a professional counselor. Your local Alzheimer's association can also be helpful.
  • Try online support groups if you can't make one in person
  • Read supportive articles online, and stories about other caregivers and how they cope. These stories remind us we aren't alone and can go a long way toward reducing guilty feelings.
  • Call your local Retired Senior Volunteer Service to see if they have Senior Companions. This service is free to the caregiver.
  • Go to your state Web site and type "aging" in the search box. Find your state's version of the National Family Caregiver Support Program. You may find there is respite care waiting to be used by savvy caregivers.
  • Hire in-home caregivers to help. Yes, these agencies charge, but their cost may be far less than any loss of health on your part. In-home care offers the maximum flexibility for scheduling purposed, so you can often work around your own doctor appointments and "mental health" breaks, where you do something for yourself.
  • Look into adult day care. Day care can give your elder a chance to interact with peers and enjoy activities while you have time to do what you need to do for yourself.
  • You need to have time to do something you enjoy. You will most likely be a better caregiver and have a healthier attitude toward life.

I've said it before and I'll continue to say it. You are as important as the person you are caring for. Think of the flight attendant telling you to put on your oxygen mask before the vulnerable person you are caring for. This is what you are doing when you get respite care for your elder so you can have time for yourself. You are preserving your own health so you can continue to help others. There's nothing to feel guilty about in that concept, now, is there?