See What HealthDay Can Do For You
Contact Us

Caregivers, Take Care

You'll last if you put yourself first

SUNDAY, Oct. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Give, give, give. That's what caregiving is all about, right?

It's a common belief among the 54 million Americans who are now providing long-term care to a family member or friend, according to Gary Barg, editor of Today's Caregiver magazine and author of a new book, The Fearless Caregiver.

But, as Barg and other experts point out, many caregivers do a disservice to themselves as well as to those they're caring for by focusing too much on others' needs and too little on their own.

"Caregivers lose sight of the need to take care of themselves first," Barg says. "They fail to consider that if they don't take care of themselves, they may well be unable to continue providing care for anyone else."

May L. Wykle, dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, likens the situation to that of adults flying with a young child.

"Adults know instinctively it's best to put on their own oxygen mask before turning to adjust the mask for a child," she says. "Caregivers need to recognize the same logic applies when they're in the role of providing long-term care. Caregivers must care for themselves -- or neither they nor their loved ones will benefit."

A 1999 study of long-term caregiving by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) and the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company showed that more than four of every 10 Americans know someone in need of such care and two in 10 have been personally responsible for providing it.

On average, these caregivers each delivered 41 hours of assistance every week -- the equivalent of a full time job, according to the study.

"It's common for caregivers, especially early on, to try to do too much," says Wykle. "The result is exhaustion, frustration, anxiety and guilt. Inevitably, the overgiving caregiver spirals down into depression -- especially if care has to be provided to the older generation and the younger generation at the same time." That's often the case, she adds, "with many in the 'baby boomer' generation today, who are sandwiched between their aging parents and their own children and grandchildren."

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) likens the need for caregivers to take care of themselves to performing regular maintenance on a car. Without regular attention, even the finest cars -- and caretakers -- will soon deteriorate.

Wykle's extensive research over the past decade shows that caregiver fatigue, stress and psychological distress often lead to physical problems, including headaches, eating and sleeping difficulty, alcohol or prescription drug abuse, and other serious illnesses. These are often compounded by caregivers' unwillingness to seek medical attention for themselves.

"It's easy for caregivers to forget that they're human, too," says Barg. "They tend to downplay how they're feeling -- both physically or psychologically -- and often believe their health and well-being are not as important as the health and well-being of the person they're caring for."

Barg and Wykle agree that caregivers must identify and use support systems for themselves.

"There are more than 50 million caregivers in the U.S., and we all think we're alone," says Barg. "But no matter where we live, there are others who have been down the same path we're now on. The best place to find them is in caregiver support groups."

Eating well, getting enough rest, and involving other family members in providing the care are other ways caregivers can take care of themselves, Wykle says.

"And don't forget to give yourself credit for what you're doing," she adds. "It's easy to think you should be doing more, when in fact, you're already doing everything you can."

What to Do: AARP has a number of practical tips for helping caregivers manage their stress. To read a summary of the NCOA/John Hancock Long-Term Care Survey, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gary Barg, editor-in-chief of Today's Caregiver magazine, author of The Fearless Caregiver; May L. Wykle, Ph.D., dean, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, and Florence Zeller Professor of Gerontology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland; AARP Web site publication Caregiving: Managing Stress When Giving Care; National Council on the Aging and John Hancock Life Mutual Life Insurance Company's Executive Summary: Long Term Care Survey, March 1999
Consumer News