Caregivers, are you neglecting your own health to take care of others?

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Skipping your own check-up but not your loved one's? It's time you started taking care of yourself as well.
Skipping your own check-up but not your loved one's? It's time you started taking care of yourself as well.

It’s an act of love, but sometimes it entails exhaustion, frustration, anxiety and depression. Caregiver stress, the physical and emotional strain of caring for a loved one with a disability or health problem, can endanger your own health and place the person you care for at risk too.

According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, many caregivers neglect their own health, particularly by not having health insurance, or putting off important health services due to cost.

"Caregivers provide tremendous benefits for their loved ones, yet they may themselves be at risk for lacking access to needed services which puts their health in jeopardy," said Jacob Bentley, PhD, of Seattle Pacific University, co-author of the study.

In the study, published in the journal Rehabilitation PsychologyBentley explains that they found that caregivers were more likely not to have health care coverage or forgo needed medical appointments and services. Even more concerning is that they were also increased risk for experiencing depression in their lifetime.

Coping without support services

The study excluded professional caregivers, and took a close look solely at those who provide care to family and friends instead. It used data from more than 24 000 people who participated in the 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System annual phone survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Up to eight hours per week went into providing care, which included typical household tasks such as cleaning and cooking. However, the majority of the participants felt that they did not need support services, such as support groups or individual counselling. This indicates that additional research into alternative support services that are prioritised by caregivers is needed, said Bentley.

Neglected healthcare

Caregivers were reported to have:

  • A 26% higher risk of not having health care coverage, compared with non-caregivers.
  • A significantly higher risk for not going to the doctor or accessing a necessary health service due to cost.
  • One-fourth of the caregivers reported that they had been diagnosed with a depressive disorder by a health care provider at some point during their lives, further representing a 36% increased risk over non-caregivers.

The disparities could be due to financial constraints that caregivers face, said Bentley and his colleagues, as caregivers’ duties often means sacrificing their financial security in the process as seeking employment outside the home, or advancing their careers is unlikely.

The discovery should serve as evidence for policymakers to focus on public health agendas, said the researchers, “because they have the power to develop policies aimed at reducing financial burdens and health care service gaps among caregivers who are vital not only to those in our communities who need care, but also to our overall health care economy".

A South African perspective

Some of the most common health conditions that may require a caregiver include cancer, strokeincontinence, and mental illness.

A 2017 study that looked at the experiences of South African family caregivers caring for cancer patients found that participants were overwhelmed with their care responsibilities, which were particularly aggravated by poverty. 

Some reported feeling "emotionally broken and alone" in their journey of caregiving, and felt like their lives had been put on hold in that they often ended up neglecting normal activities and relationships with their partners or children in order to take care of the sick person. 

Managing caregiver burnout

If you think your health may be taking a toll on your caregiving, Caregiver Stress has the following tips to help you identify whether it’s time you sought help:

  • Do you easily feel irritable or angry?
  • Do you often cry unexpectedly, or have dramatic mood swings?
  • Do you have trouble falling and staying asleep?
  • Have you recently gained or lost weight?
  • Is it hard to concentrate when performing mental tasks?
  • Have you developed high blood pressure?
  • Do you feel socially isolated, like nobody understands?

If you answered "yes" to the majority of these questions, it could be a signal that you shouldn’t put your own health on hold. Eating healthily, being active, and joining a caregiver support group, either in your own community or online are some of the things you can do to ease your frustration and stress.

Image credit: iStock

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