The Rewards and Hazards of Family Caregiving

Though caregivers of loved ones are often viewed with appreciation, respect and admiration for undertaking this difficult task that requires physical and emotional resiliency, they may be unaware of the risks associated with this saintly endeavor.

In 2005, the National Alliance for Caregiving estimated that “65.7 million Americans or 29 percent of the U.S. adult population involving 31 percent of all U.S. households served as family caregivers for an ill or disabled relative. Of those caring for someone over 65, the average age of the caregivers is 63, a third of whom are in fair or poor health themselves.”

As challenging as caregiving may be, a 2014 survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that “83 percent of caregivers viewed caregiving as a positive experience.” They sited their primary sources of satisfaction coming from: “1. Giving back to someone who has loved them. 2. Knowing that their loved one is getting excellent care and 3. Developing an increased sense of purpose in their lives.”

Most family caregivers invest such intense loving energy in securing the welfare of their loved ones that they often fail to attend to their own needs. The consequences of their self-abandonment may be grave.

In “Depression Symptoms in Cancer Caregivers” Henry R. Rivera states: “Each year, more than 44 million individuals in the United States are the primary caregivers for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend. 32%-50% of these caregivers exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, suggested to arise from anticipatory grieving of patient’s losses and the eventual death of their beloved.” He cites studies that document that many caregivers suffer from depression, have compromised immune systems, have increased levels of coronary heart disease and metabolic syndrome and have 63% higher mortality risk than non-caregivers.

The Alzheimer’s Association lists ten common symptoms of caregivers’ stress: 1. Denial. 2. Anger. 3. Social withdrawal. 4. Anxiety about the future. 5. Depression. 6. Exhaustion. 7. Sleeplessness. 8. Irritability. 9. Difficulties with concentration. 10. Health problems.

It appears that both rewards and hazards impact family caregivers. How they manage those challenges is probably their most crucial issue. Perhaps learning to deal with the inevitable stress associated with caregiving can spare caregivers the doom of ill health and earlier demise. The best tools available today recommend creating a balance between caring for a loved one and attending to one’s self-care.

Family caregivers are well advised to balance their commitment to caring for a loved one with some measures of self-care and health preservation.

Family caregivers:

  • Validate yourself daily for the tasks you perform, the kindness your exhibit and the loving and conscientious care you provide for your family member.
  • Recognize the signs of depression, discouragement, grief, anger, or fear as expected symptoms of caregiving and seek individual or group support.
  • Be vigilant about your health habits and medical care.
  • Will yourself to engage in self-rewarding activities, relaxation, exercise, healthy eating and other pleasurable pursuits that will recharge your physical and emotional batteries.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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