Caregiver, Care for Thyself: The Physical and Mental Health Effects of Family Caregiving on Older Adults

physical and mental health effects of family care giving There is both beauty and tragedy in the fact that, for the most part, we tend to fall in love with people our own age. We have the same social memories, the same cultural touchstones, and often the same general values. And there is something sweet about growing old together, seeing the power of aging in each other’s eyes. The tragedy comes, though, that when one partner most needs help, the other might be suffering as well.

This is a challenge for older couples, especially when one of them needs a caregiver and the other is still relatively healthy. That bond, their love, their life together, often compels the healthy partner to serve as the primary caregiver. After all, who knows their loved one better, and with whom would they feel more comfortable?

But what happens when that responsibility becomes too much for the caregiver? After all, they’re often outside the prime of their health themselves, love compelling them to take on a heavy burden. If you’re caring for your partner, it’s vitally important to recognize signs that you might be hurting yourself, hurting your loved one, and making it more difficult to get proper care for both of you. Caregivers often need care themselves—for the wellbeing of everyone.

The Risks Facing Older Caregivers

About 34% of caregivers in the United States are over 65 years old. Some are caring for an older parent, but most for a spouse. This poses a lot of challenges.

We certainly don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, or assume that if you are over 65 you’re suddenly incapable of providing support to your loved ones. Our aging friends dance and swim, they improve their communities and they take on new adventures every day.  That said, it’s disingenuous to pretend that older caregivers don’t face risks. Some of the main ones include:

Falling and Other Injuries

We know that older adults are already at a higher risk of falling. Even as a middle-aged adult, I know there have been times when I’ve tried to catch someone who’s falling, or prop them up when they’re stumbling, or pick them up after they’ve fallen, and have been caught off guard by their weight. Even 100 pounds can feel quite heavy when it is suddenly pressed on you.

That’s why so many older caregivers suffer more of their own falls, not to mention scratches and bruises, either trying to catch their partner, or helping them up. Their physical strength doesn’t always match their will. These can be minor injuries, or they can be serious ones, sometimes even requiring another caregiver. It’s important for older caregivers to recognize and honor their own limitations. You aren’t doing someone any good when you injure yourself.

Not Taking Care of Your Own Well-Being

Eating right. Sleeping well. Making sure that you’re enjoying life. These are things that are, understandably, put to the side when taking care of a loved one. A UK study showed that a full 75% of caregivers over 65 gave up activities they enjoyed to take care of their loved one. 81% said they felt lonely and isolated. 83% said their role was having a negative impact on their health.

We know that isolation can cause sickness, depression, and even exacerbate dementia, as can not eating or sleeping right. Too often, caring for someone seems to mean neglecting your own basic needs. And that’s a compounding tragedy.

Financial Troubles

Families where someone has a caregiver role have incomes that are 15% lower than those without (scaled for other factors). 47% of caregivers report that they used up most or all of their savings. And that’s at any age. So it can be financially difficult to care for an older spouse. The trap, of course, is that many people think it’s cold to consider money, and so, well, don’t.

But it isn’t even just that caregiving is expensive. Many adults neglect taking care of other bills, paying mortgage or rent on time, paying off credit cards simply because their attention is elsewhere. They’re so focused on their honorable role as caregiver, that they neglect finances. This can make everyone’s lives considerably more difficult.

Ignoring Illnesses

In the same UK study, we saw some very sobering statistics.

  • 86% of caregivers had health problems of their own
  • 67% said that it was a result of their role as a caregiver
  • 57% had canceled a medical appointment because of their caregiving responsibilities

It should be stressed that the 57% only includes people who bothered to make appointments in the first place. Neglecting your own health—out of duty, out of denial, or just because you don’t have the time—is the best way to get sick and hurt yourself. That so many older caregivers feel the need to ignore illness is a sign that priorities regarding health are out of line.

Failure to take care of yourself is noble, and self-sacrificing, but it doesn’t always mean that you’re doing the right thing for your loved one. It’s important to remember a simple phrase: when you need help, try to find it.

Finding Help for Your Loved One

The most important thing to bear in mind is that there’s no shame in not being able to do it all alone. It takes a village to care for people. Some are doctors, some are family members, and some are professional or volunteer caregivers. Finding someone to help with the burdens of caregiving through home care and other support services, can protect your health, and theirs, for years to come.

You’ve grown old together. You’ve seen that flush of youth turn into the wisdom of age, and have held each other’s hands through many years and through the slow-motion miracle of our transforming lives. Now that you’ve entered another stage, don’t think of it as a failure if you need help. It isn’t. You’re providing an amazing service in helping your loved one age at home with the maximum respect and dignity they deserve. There should be a shoulder on which you can rest your cares, ease your fears, and sigh into when you need it.

Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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