The Risks of Caregiving

You've probably chosen this course because you want to be a more skilled and confident caregiver. That's wonderful, but did you know that caregivers of seriously ill people often develop serious health problems themselves? Research shows that, compared to non-caregivers, caregivers are more likely to:

  • be depressed or anxious
  • have slower wound healing
  • have higher levels of obesity
  • have higher levels of stress hormones
  • spend more days sick with an infectious disease
  • have a weaker immune response to the influenza, or flu
  • have higher risk for mental decline, including problems with memory and attention
  • develop a long-term medical problem earlier, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis

The last thing sick or dying people need is to learn that their caregivers are hurting or neglecting themselves, but this is often what happens. Throughout this course you will have an opportunity to learn why this is and what you can do about it.

Caregivers may have more health problems because of two reasons: 1) they are often handling more stress and 2) they are often less likely to be taking care of themselves. For instance, compared with women who are not caregivers, women who are caregivers are less likely to:

  • get a mammogram
  • get medical care when they need it
  • fill a prescription for themselves

Also, compared with their own baseline before they became caregivers, many caregivers report that they are less likely to:

  • get enough sleep
  • eat a healthy diet or
  • get enough physical activity

Recall that our mental, emotional, physical and social/relational aspects are intertwined and interconnected. So, what affects one aspect of yourself will influence all other aspects. This means:

  • the emotions you feel affect your thoughts, and your thoughts affect your emotions
  • your thoughts and emotions affect your biochemistry, tissues and organs
  • the foods you eat; the type and amount of exercise you engage in; the amount of rest and sleep you get; the air you breathe... all of these self-care practices affect your thoughts, emotions, and relationships
  • the types and nature of the relationships you engage in effect your physical health, your emotional health, your mental clarity, and your sense of well-being, too

Signs that you are deficient in self-care include:

  • often feeling sad or numb
  • feeling constantly worried
  • often feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling tired most of the time
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • unable to focus or concentrate
  • gaining or losing significant weight
  • becoming easily irritated or angered
  • loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • abusing food, alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs
  • frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems
  • feeling you have “nothing left to give” emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually

I encourage you to develop and follow a personal self-care plan to help you deal more effectively with stress and to bring more vitality and resilience into your life. When you practice self-care, the positive effects spill into all other areas of your life!

Self-care is at the center of joyful living and peaceful dying, and that's as true for the people who are ill as it is for their caregivers. Without sufficient self-care, everything else a person does will be undermined, and the best time to improve your self-care is now. People who create and maintain strong self-care habits now are more likely to continue at least some of them during times of extra stress. For interesting research about longevity and self-care, see Dan Buettner’s work on the “Blue Zones”.