Serving as a caregiver for a family member or friend is one of the most demanding jobs most of us will ever do. It’s also a job many of us have experienced: research shows that about 40 percent of Americans have provided long-term care to an older relative or friend, usually without pay. And as the population ages, the need for volunteer caregivers (as well as those who provide salaried home visitation) is only going to rise dramatically.
Four in Ten Americans have been Caregivers
Because so many of our AgingOptions blog readers and radio listeners are affected by caregiving in one way or another, we were intrigued by this very recent article that we found on the website of the Seattle Times, written by Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press. According to a new poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, many of the caregivers who are looking after the health needs of someone they love are actually ignoring their own physical well-being. “Four in 10 Americans have provided long-term care to an older relative or friend,” says Neergaard, but the newly-published survey “found that many providing this help are neglecting to care for their own physical and mental health.”
“Skipping your checkup but not grandma’s?” asks the article. “Caring for an older loved one is a balancing act, and a new poll shows that too often it’s the caregivers’ health that’s neglected.”
Caregivers Neglect Their Own Health Needs
According to the survey, “about a third of caregivers have gone without a routine physical or dental care,” says the Times. They often skipped scheduled medical tests and even forgot to fill prescriptions because they were so busy with their caregiving duties, and they frequently failed to see a doctor for their own illness or injury. This situation is ironic, the survey suggests: “Most caregivers go to medical appointments with the seniors they care for, yet the poll found they’re less likely to get information about self-care, support programs or other services during those visits than if they make time to see their own physicians for advice.” In other words, even sitting in the doctor’s office, they ignore their own needs in favor of the needs of the person for whom they are providing care.
As the research reveals, about one caregiver in four has found that taking care of someone else takes about as much time as a full-time job, a figure that is especially true for caregivers over 40. The AP-NORC research shows that caregivers take their roles very seriously, and have come to feel that serving in the caregiving capacity is an important part of their identity. But these physical and emotional demands can make it difficult for those providing care to care for themselves by meeting their own physical and mental health needs. “Nearly 40 percent of caregivers have a health problem, physical disability or mental health condition that impacts their daily life or limits their activities, the poll found. More than a quarter of caregivers say it’s difficult to manage their own health along with the caregiving duties.” It’s a particular struggle for caregivers who are themselves suffering with chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, a situation that is fairly common when one aging spouse becomes a caregiver for another.
Treating Caregivers and Care Recipients as a Unit
One would think that caregivers would seek help from their own primary care physicians, but that’s not the case. “The AP-NORC poll found only a quarter of caregivers talk with their own doctors about their caregiving responsibilities,” said the Seattle Times article. As we pointed out above, most caregivers “accompany the person they assist to medical appointments, usually going into the exam rather than staying in the waiting room.” Yet fewer than half received any caregiving advice during those visits. Many in the medical community are beginning to advocate for a new approach: as one physician put it, caregivers and their charges “should be treated simultaneously. They should be looked at as a unit.” That’s because “if the caregiver burns out, the patient may have no one left.”
Sadly, as enlightened as this approach to “joint treatment” may sound, our medical insurance system is getting in the way. “The health system marginalizes caregivers partly because there’s no way to bill for assessing caregivers during someone else’s visit,” says Neergaard in the Times. Some doctors may also be reluctant to offer advice to caregivers because they may not know what community resources to recommend.
Sleep Problems and Substance Abuse
The health problems of caregivers run the gamut. Just under half of all caregivers told the AP-NORC researchers that they’re sleeping less, and about 1 in 6 reports increased use of alcohol and tobacco. Others report unusual changes in weight due to irregular eating habits and increased stress, not to mention the physical injuries and strains that can come from helping another adult who may not be especially mobile. With all these and many other risk factors in play, you as a caregiver owe it to yourself and to those you love to take care of your own health as well as you can. If you’re a senior, one suggestion we urge you to follow is to make your own primary care physician a board-certified geriatrician. These specialists in senior care will provide you with the individualized care you need, and they are much more likely to be able to understand the demands of caregiving. Contact us and we will refer you to a geriatrician near you.
Planning for your Own Future
We’ve been talking about taking care of your own health, but what about planning for your own retirement? Would you say your retirement plan is on track, or could it use some work? In our experience here at AgingOptions, one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they fail to plan for all the pieces of retirement, instead focusing only on one element, such as finances or housing. But how much money you’ve saved is no guarantee of a secure retirement, nor is your desire to age in place in your own home any guarantee that you’ll be able to accomplish it. You need a comprehensive plan in which finances and housing plans work hand in hand with medical coverage and family communication, all protected by a robust legal framework. We call that a LifePlan, and it’s the only retirement plan of its kind we know of.
There’s a quick, enjoyable and no-cost way to find out more: accept Rajiv Nagaich’s invitation to join him at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar. We offer these highly popular events in locations around the Sound, so for a complete calendar of upcoming seminars visit our Live Events page and register for the date and time of your choice. You can successfully protect your assets, avoid becoming a burden to those you love, and escape being forced into unplanned institutional care, thanks to the power of an AgingOptions LifePlan. Age on!
(originally reported at www.seattletimes.com)