Caregivers, those tending someone who is ill, disabled, emotionally vulnerable or aged, are often at high risk themselves. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP in a study updated in November 2012, currently about 65.7 million caregivers make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care And those in what’s termed the Sandwich Generation often are juggling multiple demands—dealing with their parents as well as their children whether they’re under 18 and still at home or young adults struggling to find well paying jobs or the expense of college tuition. Add to that the stresses of everyday living, jobs and paying the bills and working and the combination can be detrimental.
That’s what a study by the National Caregiver Alliance indicates. As an example of how caretaking can impact health, the study shows that the risk for a caregiving spouse between the ages of 66 and 96 experiencing mental or emotional strain is 63 percent higher than those of the same age who are not caretakers. The combination of loss, prolonged stress, physical demands of caregiving and biological vulnerabilities that come with age place people at risk for significant health problems as well as, possibly, an earlier death.
According to Dr. Larry Brewerton, PhD, a professor of psychology at Indiana University Northwest who also has a part time private clinical practice, it isn’t only older caregivers who at risk. The Sandwich Generation also faces an increased risk for depression, chronic illness and a deterioration in their quality of life.
“Nervousness, grouchiness, constant fatigue, inability to sleep, lack of appetite or eating too much, can’t get the cared-for one off your mind, finding no happiness in everyday things, confusion, having no spare time or being too tired to enjoy it,” says Cynthia Fodness, MSN, CNS, Mental Health Nursing Instructor at the University of St. Francis and psychiatric consultant at St. Clare Clinic when asked what are some of the warning signs that a caregiver may need care too.
It’s important to recognize these symptoms not only in ourselves but also with friends.
“That’s when it’s important to talk to the person about it,” says Brewerton who warns against missing the signs of someone in distress.
Sometimes our friends are in a caring profession and can’t just vent to us and so we need to find other ways to help.
“If the person is a professional bound by patient confidentiality, encourage him or her to use resources available within his/her profession,” Fodness says. “
But no matter what, Fodness recommends asking what you can do to help.
“Don’t just say, let me know if I can do anything to help, Fodness recommends. “Offer specific help—bring food, take the person—with or without the cared-for one—out for coffee or a meal. Spend time with the cared-for one so the caregiver can have some time away.”
Stress and poor planning often lead to poor dietary choices and they can become chronic problems says Cathie Claysen MS, RD, LD, School of Nursing, College of Health and Human Services at Indiana University Northwest.
“It can help to keep a log of your food and exercise habits,” she says. “Then choose an area to improve, such as evening snacking in front of the television. Then formulate a plan to change your habit. This could be going for a walk after dinner, having a healthy snack prepared, or relaxing with a book instead. When you find a substitute that works for you, then repeat it until it becomes a habit.”
Fodness also lists getting enough sleep, drinking fluids, avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol, exercising, spending time with friends and family, doing things that have been fun in the past and seek support from people in your life.
Ask for things you need, and don’t take everything onto your shoulders—lots of people want to help but don’t want to intrude,” she says. “If you ask, they’ll help. See your doctor regularly and especially if you have signs of illness and seek counseling if things become overwhelming.”
Ssupport groups are also a good way to find support and help. Most communities offer a variety of groups, most of them free, such as Alzheimer’s Support Group as well as groups offering support for such diseases and issues as cancer, mentally ill children, grieving parents and more. Hospitals offer a range of groups and more information can often be found in local newspapers and on Websites.
“I forget who said it,” says Fodness, “but someone said, ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child.’ That’s so true. It’s also true that it takes more than a caregiver to care for someone who needs care. It takes the community, which includes family, friends, and everyone else, to care for the one needing care, as well as the one giving it.”