Who cares for the Caregiver? Tips from the Experts!

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

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In health care, there are many unsung heroes, individuals who don’t don the white coats but are extremely critical to the health and well-being of those who are ill or disabled. I have deep admiration and respect for the millions of people who have taken on the role of family caregiver.

I’ve seen time and time again the benefits that a caregiver can have on a brain cancer patient’s recovery outlook and survival. As the battle against cancer begins, someone must transport the patient to treatments, make sure drugs are taken, and help the patient push through the debilitating side effects – not to mention the emotional support that the patient needs to fight the war. As a doctor, I only get a tiny glimpse of the psychological and physical roller coaster that comes with something as overwhelming and distressing as brain cancer treatment.

While it’s a blessing to have someone able and willing to help care for a sick loved one, there are also drawbacks. Having a loved one with a , or any severe chronic illness, can be extremely stressful – not just for the patient, but for the spouse, children and relatives; these often are the people who end up in the position of family caregiver. Many times, caregivers neglect or don’t recognize their own health needs because they are so focused on the person who is sick or disabled. With 52 million Americans acting as informal caregivers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it’s important to shed some light onto this issue.

Psychological Consequences of Caregiving
Many studies have shown that a person’s quality of life is at great risk of decreasing as he or she takes on the responsibilities of caring for someone else, even if it’s only part-time or from afar. As one might expect,caregiving can take a significant toll on one’s mental state. Caregivers consistently report higher levels of depressive symptoms versus non-caregivers; 20 to 50 percent of caregivers report being depressed or having depression-like symptoms. For caregivers, it’s easy to dismiss things like irritability, sadness, fatigue or difficulty concentrating as a natural consequence of the stress of tending to an ill or disabled loved one, but these also can be indicators of a more serious mental health issue.

Caregiving’s Physical Toll
Thestress of caregiving has been shown to compromise the immune system, which can lead to many health issues. A study of elderly spousal caregivers age 66 to 96 found that those who experience caregiving-related stress have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers of the same age. The same researchers also found that one-third of stressed caregivers who themselves had a severe chronic disease died within the study’s four-year follow-up period. Other studies have found that caregiving for ill spouses may increase heart disease and stimulate the production of inflammatory chemicals that are associated with a host of health conditions, from osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes to certain cancers and overall functional decline.

Calling All Caregivers
If you are a caregiver, my first thought is: Hats off to you. My second thought is: Please take care of yourself, and listen to your body and brain. Don’t dismiss things that don’t feel right by saying, “It’s just stress” or “I’m just tired.” While you may believe it’s best to pour all your energy and time toward caring for your loved one, if it’s at the expense of your own health, it will affect the quality of your life and your care. If things get overwhelming, ask for help. Exercise regularly; physical activity has been proven to decrease stress, and research has shown that caregivers who exercised on a regular basis experienced significant improvement in stress levels anddepression. Try to maintain a normal, balanced diet and sleep regimen. Take some time off from your caregiving responsibilities to do something you enjoy, like watching a movie or having a meal with friends.

For more information on caregiving and resources for caregivers, visit:

- U.S. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging – Caregiving Resources
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- The Family Caregiver Alliance

Being a caregiver is anything but easy, but at the end of the day, you must care for yourself, too.

Mind your health,

Dr. Keith Black

For more information on Dr. Keith Black, visit the Cedars-Sinai Neurosurgery

Last Updated:6/20/2011
Important:The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.
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