Just imagine it. You’ve been given a job for which you usually have no experience. You didn’t apply for it. You’re not sure you want the job, it’s unpaid, and you can’t just quit it when you feel like it. This is the situation of many caregivers — it’s a life-changing assignment destined to be stressful.
“It’s not a very appealing list of options that caregivers face,” says Geriatrician Heidi J. Syropoulos, M.D., medical director of Government Markets at Independence Blue Cross. “You can be there for a loved one who desperately needs some kind of help, or you can choose not to help them. And not helping can cause all kinds of issues and problems.”
According to a September 2020 Blue Cross Blue Shield of America report, The Impact of Caregiving on Mental and Physical Health, 57 percent of caregivers experience clinically significant stress, anxiety, or depression levels. The stress of caregiving also resulted in 64 percent higher rates of hypertension and a 50-percent higher incidence of obesity.
Caring for Yourself is Key
Self-care for the caregiver is critical. “You have to eat well, and you have to get enough sleep,” Dr. Syropoulos says. “You really should be doing some kind of exercise every day. It can be something fairly small, even just taking a walk around the block.”
Keeping a journal and making a list of one or two things you will complete daily can help provide a sense of control. And getting a pet can provide a helpful emotional boost for some people, she adds. Of course, pets need care, too, so be sure it’s the right decision for you.
“Really connect with at least one other person and hopefully several other people,” says Dr. Syropoulos. “Get yourself into a social situation where you can confide in a friend and talk about what’s going on and laugh. And prioritize your own physical and mental health needs.” Importantly, caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to say no to outside requests and to ask for and accept help.
And if possible, try to plan the occasional getaway.
“If you think about caregivers who are taking care of people who need them every single day, they almost never get a vacation. So, getting someone who can come in and give you a day or two off can be rejuvenating,” Syropoulos said.
The Silver Lining
Despite the challenges of caregiving, there are meaningful benefits.
“It gives you an intense sense of purpose. You come to appreciate other people that are taking care of people. Sometimes you can learn a new skill. Some people say it built their self-confidence. But I think the main thing is that they really feel this tremendous sense that they’re strengthening the bond with their loved one, and they feel good about what they’ve accomplished.”
If you’re a caregiver, remember you’re not alone. Local support is available. The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging offers caregiver training, financial assistance, and other services. It also offers special support for grandparents and other older adults caring for children. In addition, some local organizations host caregiver support groups, including CARES for Philadelphia, the Alzheimer’s Association, and more.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.