Taking Care of Themselves
What Every Caregiver Needs to Fight Stress
May 4, 2010
Family caregivers are the backbone of the long-term care system in Ohio. Almost two million Ohioans and one-quarter of U.S. adults care for an aging parent, relative or spouse, according to a study by AARP and the Family Caregiver Alliance. Studies show that three-quarters of people with disabilities or chronic illness, who remain in their homes, depend solely on family and friends to meet their day-to-day needs. Yet, most family caregivers receive no formal training, little help from medical professionals, scant information about how to find services for their loved one or for themselves and have no idea how to pay for it all.
While family caregiving often is very rewarding and a bonding experience, it also can be stressful. Most family caregivers struggle to balance care for an aging parent or relative with other major responsibilities, including jobs and caring for children, often leaving little time to care for themselves. Is it surprising that caregivers neglect their own health care needs? Caregivers who experience elevated levels of stress are at an increased risk for physical and emotional issues. Between 40 and 70 percent of caregivers show clinically significant symptoms of depression, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.
The first step in dealing with caregiver stress is to recognize the signs, which mimic the symptoms of depression: sleeping problems, weight gain or loss, feeling tired most of the time, loss of interest in activities, feeling easily irritated, angered, or saddened or frequent physical problems like headaches or stomach aches.
Even if they recognize signs of their own stress, caregivers can have a hard time accessing or accepting supports and services. To some caregivers, taking care of themselves seems selfish as they focus on their own needs and desires. For others, asking for help is a sign they are not handling the situation well. Also, stress can build over time. What at first might seem like a manageable level of stress can, as time passes, become overwhelming.
Caregivers often are unaware of the availability of supportive services. As many as one in four has unmet needs, but only nine percent used respite services and only 11 percent participated in support groups, according to the Alzheimer's Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving. Studies show that caregivers who feel more comfortable with the role, who learn how to manage the responsibilities and use a problem-solving approach to the challenges of caregiving, generally do better. Caregivers can be taught technical skills and strategies to prevent overload, learn how to manage problem behaviors and obtain emotional support before they find themselves in crisis mode.
BenefitsCheckUp.org and Ohio Benefit Bank can help caregivers identify financial benefits for which they may qualify and, in some cases, apply for them. Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies will cover some of the costs of home health care, but other costs caregivers themselves will have to pay. The costs of home care depends on the services used. Non-medical workers like housekeepers are much less expensive than nurses or physical therapists, while some home care agencies are less expensive than others.
Area agencies on aging (1-866-243-5678) can help caregivers access supportive services, provide individual counseling, facilitate support groups and caregiver training, organize respite care for temporary relief from caregiving responsibilities and more.
Ohio caregivers contribute almost two million hours of unpaid help to others annually, care valued in excess of $14.2 billion. With caregiver burn-out a very real threat, we must encourage caregivers who wish to continue their efforts to accept help. We must ensure they know where to go to access help. Also, we must help family caregivers realize that they are not alone. Support is available.
Caregivers need to be encouraged to give themselves the gift of taking care of themselves. It is one of the most important - and one of the most often forgotten - things any caregiver can do.
Barbara E. Riley