by Ashley Grano
With the continued rise of medical and technological innovations, people are now living longer than ever. As a result, more and more people are taking on the role of caregiver in addition to their usual responsibilities. In fact, AARP estimates that nearly 44 million U.S. adults are currently caring for an elderly friend or family member. For many, this new duty came on suddenly, such as following an illness or injury to their parent or loved one. For others, it was a more calculated decision, or came about as a slow progression. Regardless of the circumstances, becoming a caregiver is much like parenting – there are always unforeseen challenges and experiences that can put even the most prepared person in a distressed position. Fortunately, there are many tools and resources available to caregivers that can ease the burden.
The emotional and physical tolls of caregiving
Caregiving is undoubtedly full of stressful responsibilities, and research has shown that it can lead to negative psychological and physical effects. Clinical observation and research published in the US National Library of Medicine equated caregiving with a chronic stress experience. Often, this stress becomes compounded due to the added responsibility of caring, whether partially or completely, for another person in addition to other work, family or personal obligations.
Family structure also plays a role in caregiving. For siblings who must come to the decision of who will care for their elderly parent, this discussion and decision can often lead to resentment and anger, as the distributed weight of responsibility is rarely equal, according to sources at PBS Health. Similarly, caregivers faced with no familial sources of help are often left alone to deal with the burden, causing mounting pressures. Many of these may result in not only emotional and physical tolls, but also financial woes, as caregiving may interrupt holding a regular job or lead to unplanned medical expenses, says US News.
Identify all available resources and create a support system
Family and friends are the obvious first line of support to help recreate a sense of balance and purpose in life besides caregiving, but often the need for specialized support requires going beyond one’s immediate social network. One of the best ways to transition into full caregiver status is to connect with the growing community of other caregivers struggling with the same grief and stresses.
The emotional and physical health consequences of caregiving can make the position feel extremely isolating, which can further detriment health. In addition, caregiving can cause a major detachment from previously enjoyed activities, as they can no longer be enjoyed due to constraints with time and/or money. Connecting with other caregivers via online communities or local support groups is often a beneficial method of coping, suggests Harvard Health.
Since every caregiving situation is unique, trying both virtual and in-person support groups can help maximize the best of a collective group’s efforts and resources. With various peer networks in place, it should alleviate some of the burden of asking for help as needed, whether it’s taking a parent to a doctor’s appointment now and then or finding a referral for the best healthcare plan.
Prioritizing personal health
One of the biggest challenges with caregiving is dealing with the burnout from extended periods of stress, says the Mayo Clinic. Although it may be impossible to go back to pre-caregiving life, it is imperative to maintain as many positive, healthy activities as possible.
Engaging in regular exercise is especially important. For a fast but effective routine, consider doing 20 minutes of daily walking, which has been shown to help lower the risk of depression, reduce stress, and maintain a healthy weight, says WebMD. To help stay consistent, try setting mini health goals each week, suggests the Mayo Clinic. These goals could be as simple as scheduling in fitness times on the calendar for a simple, visual reminder that can lead to a sense of accomplishment once checked off the to-do list.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet full of nutritious foods is another vital aspect to health. Unfortunately, caregivers often resort to eating primarily convenient but unhealthy fast foods. A poll by the National Alliance for Caregiving found that 6 out of 10 caregivers surveyed admitted that their eating habits worsened. Fortunately, some of the healthiest foods also require very little prep time, so getting back on track with healthy eating doesn’t have to be a challenge. This includes eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and fish, suggests WebMD. When possible, prepare some meals in advance for the week, to avoid junk food temptation.
While caregiving is full of challenges, it is important to remember to identify the available resources that can help manage the responsibilities in the healthiest manner possible.