BY DEBBIE BARR
Chances are, if you’re not a caregiver yourself, you know someone who is. Nearly 44 million Americans provide care for loved ones or friends with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, or stroke. The services of these unpaid caregivers—mostly women (61%) and typically spouses or adult children—have an estimated annual worth of $470 billion.
As you may know, there’s an upside and a downside to caregiving.
Caring for an ill or disabled loved one lets caregivers experience the satisfaction of giving back to a relative who may have raised them or played a special role in their life. Many say that serving as a caregiver has strengthened their emotional bond with that person. Caregiving also helps caregivers feel good about themselves. Jaclyn, who lives in Winston-Salem and is the primary caregiver for her husband, emphasizes the upside of caregiving. She told her caregiver support group, “I think caregiving really is the most important thing we’ll ever do.”
Caregiving can take a serious toll on caregivers’ physical, mental, and emotional health. Many caregivers are socially isolated and lack a team of friends and family members who can step in and give them a break. Loneliness, anxiety, anger, frustration, and a sense of helplessness are commonly felt by caregivers. About 22% say they are exhausted when they fall into bed at night, and 40–70% have symptoms of depression. Many constantly worry about finances.
Because they focus so much on the person in their care, caregivers often neglect their own health. Many don’t get adequate sleep, cook healthy meals, or exercise. In addition, the relentless stresses of caregiving increase adrenaline and cortisol, hormones known to suppress the immune system, making caregivers vulnerable to illness. Stressed-out caregivers are more likely to have a chronic health problem, such as diabetes or arthritis, but less likely to visit a doctor or fill a prescription for themselves.
Five Ways to Help
If you know a caregiver, you can be part of their support team. Here are five things every caregiver needs:
- Practical Help
Ask the caregiver what they need most, or offer whatever your time and resources permit. Ideas: mow their lawn, do laundry, pick up a prescription, make home repairs, change the oil in their car, wash windows.
Older spouse caregivers may resist help if they believe it is their marital duty to do everything themselves. It may be easier for them to accept help if offers are very specific. For example, “I am going to the grocery store this afternoon. What can I pick up for you?”
- Time Off
Offer to be a “sitter,” so the caregiver can run errands, attend a support group or Bible study, nap, go to the doctor, exercise, or just enjoy some free time. Bring a friend along if you’re not comfortable “sitting” by yourself.
- A Listening Ear
Be the antidote to the loneliness of caregiving! Call or visit the caregiver to find out how they are doing and respond with empathy. Many people cope better with their feelings and fears when they are shared with a compassionate listener.
If you think a caregiver is doing a good job, let them know. A phone call, greeting card, text, or e-mail praising their efforts can brighten their day, as they realize that you see value in their caregiving.
When someone else offers to “sit” with the person in their care, do something fun with the caregiver. Ideas:
- Gather friends and take the caregiver out for coffee and conversation.
- Treat him or her to lunch at a restaurant.
- Take him or her to a concert, community event, or movie.
- If you are financially able, hire a professional caregiver to provide respite care for a few hours each week, and encourage the caregiver to use this time in whatever way is most enjoyable.
Debbie Barr, MA, is a master certified health education specialist (MCHES) and coauthor of Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: The 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey (Northfield, 2016). She is currently writing a daily devotional book for dementia caregivers.