About one-third of American adults take responsibility for the care of an aging or disabled family member and most also hold jobs, full or part-time. In the growing population of aging Americans, 80 percent of long-term care is provided by family caregivers, not health professionals.
The good news is that, given our preferences, most of us want to be there to help family members who are ill or getting too old to take care of themselves … but (here’s the not-so-good news) it’s also, undeniably, stressful. A report published by the National Institutes of Health notes that family caregiving meets all the criteria of a chronic stressful experience in that it:
- Creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time
- Brings high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability
- May create stress in other parts of life, such as work and relationships
- Often requires high levels of vigilance
Though caregiving brings many emotional gifts, the NIH report and others note that caregivers have a higher risk for health and medical problems, most particularly anxiety and depression. Caregivers often put their own needs last, typically eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, not exercising and overlooking how important it is to balance responsibilities with relaxation and activities that bring pleasure.
Sound familiar? Here are some of the signs of caregiver burnout:
- You feel anxious, tired and irritable
- You are sleeping too much or too little
- You’ve gained or lost weight
- You’re sad and no longer find pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- You have headaches, pain or other medical troubles
- You drink or use drugs to find relief
The first thing to remember is that you’re no help to anyone if you get sick. If the best reason you can come up with to take care of yourself is that you’ll be a better caretaker, start there.
- Accept help and seek support, socially and from other caretakers who understand your situation.
- Focus on your own health, starting with a visit to your doctor. Set specific health goals (meals, exercise, etc.).
- Be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Prioritize and break tasks into simple, small steps. Give yourself permission to say no.
These tips are brought to you by Peninsula Regional Medical Center, where we care for you, coach you to live well and connect you with the right providers. To learn more, visit www.peninsula.org.