Caregivers are at an increased risk for mental and physical health issues due to the responsibilities and stress of caring for a spouse or senior loved one.
Read more about what to do when caregiving takes a toll on a caregiver’s health and how to improve your health and wellness.
A Day in the Life of a Caregiver
One morning, Jim Colozzo’s 79-year-old mother woke and couldn’t move her legs. Colozzo took his mother, who suffered from spinal conditions, to doctors and pain specialists for two years until a failed surgery landed her in the hospital for three weeks. Even though her prognosis was grim, Colozzo opted to bring his mom home instead of placing her in a skilled nursing community.
“Do you know what you’re in for?” a doctor asked him.
Colozzo, who lives in Chino, California, had a pretty good idea of what he was taking on. He already lived with his mother and was used to lifting her out of bed and into wheelchairs. However, his mom’s sharp decline would increase Colozzo’s caregiving duties significantly. Colozzo knew he’d have to bathe and feed his mom, change her diapers, help her shower and lift her constantly, sometimes up to 20 times a day.
What Colozzo didn’t know was that those duties would become his life for the next 13 years.
“Nobody Else Could Do It”
It’s common for an adult child or spouse to insist on being the sole caregiver for a loved one, says Lynette Whiteman, executive director of Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, a nonprofit senior services agency in Tom’s River, New Jersey.
“They feel like caregiving should be their responsibility and that nobody else could do it as well,” she says. But what happens when caregiving takes a toll on the caregiver’s health?
A recent survey conducted by Wakefield Research for SCAN Health plan found that 82% of senior caregivers find it difficult to say no to caregiving for a loved one.
Additional findings from the study include:
- 29% of family caregivers spend 40 hours or more per week on caregiving responsibilities
- 44% suffer emotional strain
- 47% neglect their own health to provide care
- 54% feel guilty if they take a break from caregiving tasks
Running yourself into the ground from caregiving can also lead to bigger problems.
“If they’re doing everything and they get sick, who’s going to take care of their loved one?” asks Whiteman. “They’re putting themselves and their loved one in a difficult position. They can’t do it all. No one can do it all.”
When Caregiving Takes a Toll on a Caregiver’s Health
“I was the only one of my siblings who could lift my mom,” says Colozzo, author of “You Got to Do What You Got to Do,” a book about his caregiving experience. Colozzo and his mom didn’t qualify for Medicaid benefits and they couldn’t afford in-home care. Soon, his own health declined.
Colozzo’s high blood pressure rose and his back hurt from constant lifting. Then one day, he slipped a disc while moving his mom to the toilet. “I had to put her down fast,” says Colozzo, who felt a sharp, burning pain and couldn’t stand. “She sat on the toilet for two hours until I could find a back brace. It took everything I had to put her in bed and clean her up.”
Colozzo even underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia because the doctor worried that Colozzo might sleep too soundly that night to hear his mom if she called for help. Yet even as his own body fell apart, Colozzo insisted on remaining his mom’s caregiver.
“She wanted to stay at home,” says Colozzo. “I made a promise and I wanted to keep it.”
Why Caregiver Help Is Necessary
Full-time caregiving can break down even a relatively young person. When 32-year-old Eva Barrios of Fort Worth, Texas was a caregiver for her dad, who had cancer, Barrios gained 20 pounds and became depressed. Her business suffered too since she had to close her alterations shop often to run home or to the hospital for emergencies.
After a short stay in a skilled nursing facility when his condition worsened, Barrios and her mom brought Barrios’ dad home and both committed to being full-time caregivers.
“It really dawned on us once we got him home how much work it was going to be,” says Barrios, whose father passed away a year later.
In retrospect, Barrios wishes she’d found a support group or other resources to help with her father’s care. “It would have been good to make friends who were going through the same process,” she says.
Whiteman equates full-time caregiving duties to those of a new parent. Caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients are especially sleep deprived since the person they’re taking care of is often up all hours of the night. “It’s hard raising a baby when you’re young,” says Whiteman. “When you’re 80 years old, it takes a tremendous toll.”
Caregivers also risk injuring themselves. One of Whiteman’s clients was a petite woman who always steadied her 6’ tall, 200 lb. husband from behind whenever they ascended stairs. “If he fell, that would have been it for both of them,” says Whiteman.
A good place to look for support groups or help with caregiving is your county’s office on aging. Some federal and volunteer programs send a person to the home once a week to give the caregiver a break. Other programs help with small home repairs or meals-on-wheels. Some agencies offer training on safely transferring patients from a chair to the bed.
“There are a whole bunch of systems in place,” says Whiteman. “Take advantage of what’s out there.”
Colozzo’s collapse from a slipped disc prompted him to start wearing a back brace while lifting his mom. “That’s when I really woke up and thought about my health because if I got hurt, I didn’t know who would take care of her,” says Colozzo, whose mom died five years ago.
Even when a caregiver plans to care for a loved one at home, the situation could get to a point where the caregiver could die first from neglecting their own health unless they place their loved one in assisted living or a skilled nursing community.
“If someone wants to be there for their loved one, it’s not selfish to ask for help,” says Whiteman. “By getting help, they’re helping their loved one.”
Have caregiving responsibilities taken a toll on your health? Read more family caregiving tips and share your stories with us in the comments below.
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