November is National Family Caregivers Month. It’s a great time to focus on the hard work and sacrifices millions of family caregivers make every day, dedicating their time and energy to taking care of their loved ones. Although the role of family caregiver is critical, it can take its toll. Taking care of a loved one who is too ill to independently manage is often physically and emotionally stressful. The demands of the job can seem never-ending. It can feel impossible to balance the demands of caregiving while working and taking care of other family and household responsibilities. Additionally, it can be lonely and isolating, with little to no free time. Often, friends slowly move on. And caregivers may neglect their own health. What makes caregiving even harder? The chronic stress leads to an increased likelihood of caregivers developing their own, sometimes serious, health issues. Can caregiving make you sick? Yes!
Are you a family caregiver? You’re not alone!
A 2020 report (before COVID-19) estimates that 53 million American adults provided unpaid caregiving duties for a loved one in a 12 month period. The report found that, on average, caregivers spend 24 hours per week providing care.
Chronic stress can make caregivers sick.
If you’re a caregiver, you know the stress associated with the job. However, you may not realize the toll that stress is taking on your body as well as on your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Importantly, chronic stress can contribute to many health problems, including hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
What do caregivers say about their own health?
As part of a caregiving study conducted by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, only 41% of caregivers report their health as excellent or very good. In contrast, 21% state their health is fair or poor. Moreover, 23% report that caregiving made their own health worse.
In a survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research almost 40% of caregivers report having a health problem, physical disability or mental health condition that impacts their daily life or limits their activities.
What do medical records indicate about the health impact of caregiving?
BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS) used their huge database of members’ claims to evaluate the health impact associated with caregiving. They used the BCBS Health Index, along with the prevalence of stress-related conditions, to determine the health levels for millions of members who care for a loved one. The findings are not good news for caregivers.
Their report, “The Impact of Caregiving on Mental and Physical Health,” found that caregivers health is 26% worse than their non-caregiving peers. Simply put, caregivers are more likely to have physical and behavioral health conditions that could lower their overall health.
The report includes aggregate information on 6.7+ million caregivers who care for a spouse and/or child. The group includes equal numbers of men and women, with most of the caregivers between 38-64 years-old. Note that the group does not include those caring for an elderly parent, which is also a stressful caregiving role.
Do all caregivers have the same risk of getting sick?
Although all caregivers had higher rates of physical and behavioral health conditions, some groups suffered more. For instance, millennials (those aged 22-37) and members of communities with a majority Black or Hispanic populations face the greatest health impacts. Interestingly, caregiver income did not have a significant impact on overall health.
When compared to non-caregivers of similar ages, BCBS found that caregivers are more likely to suffer from stress-related conditions, including:
- Hypertension (64% more likely)
- Obesity (50%)
- Major depression (37%)
- Anxiety (34%)
The impact of caregiving was the greatest for millennial caregivers. Compared to non-caregiving millennials, these young caregivers are more likely to have :
- Hypertension (82% more likely)
- Obesity (74%)
- Major depression (64%)
- Anxiety (6o%)
Additionally, caregiving millennials visited the ER more often (33% increase) and were hospitalized more frequently (59% increase) than their non-caregiving peers.
Do caregivers ignore their own health issues?
Unfortunately, many do. But the level of struggle depends on who you ask.
There’s plenty of evidence that caregivers put their own health needs on the backburner.
For instance, responses to the AARP/NAC survey show that 23% of caregivers find it hard to take care of their own health needs. And a 2020 study published by the American Psychological Association found that family caregivers are more likely to neglect their own health, often due to financial issues.
Additionally, in response to a 2018 survey of by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, over 25% of caregivers state it’s hard to manage their own health along with the caregiving duties. And among caregivers with chronic conditions, 40% find it a struggle to manage their own health. Furthermore, the survey found that caregivers often neglect their own health as follows:
- 28% say their role of caregiver makes it harder to manage their own health.
- 35% skipped routine physical or preventative care.
- 33% didn’t schedule recommended treatments or tests.
- 31% didn’t go the doctor when sick or injured.
- 28% didn’t fill prescriptions for themselves.
An interesting twist.
But the picture isn’t all negative. The BCBS report found that although caregiving leads to poorer overall health, caregivers are proactive about their health in other ways. BCBS found that caregivers were 26% more likely to have a wellness visit and 48% more likely to get a cancer screening than non-caregiving peers.
Can caregiving make you sick? What should you do?
Since caregiving can make you sick (or sicker), it’s important for caregivers to take necessary measures to stay as healthy as possible. Certainly, if you’re sick yourself, you won’t be able to provide care for your loved one. I realize it’s difficult for caregivers to find the time, money and emotional energy needed to tend to their own health. But don’t give up on yourself and your health care needs!
Try to manage your stress.
Many caregivers develop stress related illnesses, which can shorten their lifespan and reduce their quality of life. Reducing your stress as much as possible can help, but it’s easier said than done.
Unsurprisingly, the intense stress and pressure leads many caregivers to self medicate. In a survey conducted by ARCHANGELS, a national organization supporting caregivers, 57% of all caregivers reported they’ve experienced clinically significant levels of stress, anxiety and/or depression. Furthermore, the survey found many caregivers cope with stress in unhealthy ways. For instance, 14% use alcohol and 18% use medication to cope, while 50% turn to food for comfort.
Certainly, de-stressing with alcohol, drugs and food can further harm your health. Instead, try healthier ways to reduce stress, including:
- Ask for help!
- Realize you’re doing the best you can. Forgive yourself for not being perfect.
- Get some exercise.
- Practice relaxation techniques.
- Keep your sense of humor. Laugh every day.
- Frequently reach out to family and friends.
- Seek professional counseling.
- Take a few minutes every day to do something you enjoy.
- Get enough sleep.
- Join a support group – in-person or virtual.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Spend time outdoors.
- Avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol, and illegal substances.
For more details on how to de-stress, read Help with the Stress of Caregiving.
Don’t neglect your own health!
To reduce your risk of caregiving making you sick, you must pay attention to your own health too. It’s understandable that you put your loved one’s health needs first, but don’t skip or delay needed care, including annual physicals and preventative screenings. Make your health a priority! If needed, ask a family member or friend to stay with your loved one when you need medical care.
Additionally, don’t let financial concerns keep you from seeing doctors, getting tests and treatments, and purchasing prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
Worried about the cost of medications?
Worried about the cost of healthcare?
Consider these tips:
- Try to get insurance coverage – through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the Affordable Care Act.
- Talk to your doctor and/or a hospital social worker about your financial concerns.
- Visit the Zaggo Resource Center for a list of organizations that provide financial support to patients and families.
For more information, read Tips to Better Manage a Chronic Disease.