Who is a caregiver?
A caregiver is someone who gives basic care to a person who has a chronic medical condition. A chronic condition is an illness that lasts for a long time or doesn’t go away. Some examples of chronic conditions are cancer, effects of stroke, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The caregiver helps the person with tasks such as preparing and eating food, taking medicine, bathing, and dressing.
As a caregiver, am I at risk for health problems?
Yes. Because being a caregiver is so hard, your health may suffer. You may feel stressed or overwhelmed by being a caregiver. You may find that you spend much of your time caring for others, but neglect your own health. Some of the tasks of being a caregiver, such as lifting or bathing your loved one, may put extra strain on your body. Being a caregiver also can cause financial stress, and you may avoid going to the doctor so you don’t have to pay for visits or treatments. All of these things can affect your emotional, mental, and physical health.
What health problems am I at risk for?
Studies show that caregivers have an increased risk for the following health problems:
- Alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse
- Anxiety disorders
- Heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart attack
- Pain, such as muscle or joint pain and headaches
- Stress and depression
As a caregiver, what can I do to take care of my health?
The following are some things you can do to make sure you stay as healthy as possible during your loved one’s illness:
Make wellness a priority. You may feel like you have to “do it all,” regardless of the toll it takes on you. However, you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Take time out of your day to:
- Eat a balanced diet. This may be easier than you think because you may be sharing meals with your loved one, who will also need to eat balanced, healthy meals.
- Get plenty of rest. If you’re short on sleep, take naps when your loved one does. If you can’t sleep because your loved one wanders or is restless at night (this is common in people who have dementia), read “Caring for a Relative Who Has Dementia” for tips on dealing with this problem and other behavior problems.
- Exercise. Thirty to 60 minutes of exercise 4 to 6 times a week can give you more energy, reduce stress, and improve your mood. If your loved one is up for it, you can walk or find another type of exercise to do together.
- Manage stress. Your emotional health can impact your physical health. For tips on how to manage stress, read “Caregiver Stress.”
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. It may seem that these substances help you feel better for a short time, but they can affect your sleep and cause health problems if you use them regularly. If you are having trouble limiting how much you drink or quitting smoking, talk to your family doctor.
Seek treatment. If you think you might have a physical or emotional problem, be sure to see your family doctor as soon as possible.. Your health and well-being are important.
Visit your doctor for regular check-ups. Even if you don’t think you’re sick, it’s still important to see your doctor for regular check-ups. Your doctor can help you stay healthy by providing preventive services. Preventive services include health tests and screenings, vaccinations, and health advice appropriate for your age, sex, and medical and family history. These services help prevent disease and will help catch any medical conditions you do have early.
Take a break from caregiving. Accept that there is a limit to what you can do as a caregiver. Recognize when you feel overwhelmed or are physically unable to complete a task, and ask for help in caring for your loved one. Plan for times when you will need help by making a list of people who are willing to lend a hand. This list might include family members, friends, and temporary care workers. On your list, include phone numbers, the times people are available, and the tasks they feel most comfortable doing. Keep a copy of the list with you at all times in case you’re away from home when you need to ask someone for help. Or, look into community services such as in-home health care, adult day care, respite care, and meal delivery or transportation services.
- Caregiver Health by Family Caregiver Alliance (April 10, 2012)
- Caregiver stress fact sheet by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health (April 10, 2012)