It goes without saying that recent years have been particularly tough on unpaid family caregivers, who have long been shouldering tough burdens even before the pandemic. A stressed healthcare system and lack of respite opportunities has not improved their situation.
But when it comes to focusing on the things we can control – there’s promising research that shows focusing on the health and wellbeing of a caregiver (instead of just focusing on the patient) can have highly impactful results.
But before we dive into the specifics – who are family caregivers? AARP estimated in 2020 there are 53 million Americans who have caregiving duties (Caregiving in the U.S., 2020). While caregivers are traditionally depicted as elder women, the average age of a caregiver is 49. In fact, 24% of caregivers are under the age of 34. The gender balance is also changing as 39% of caregivers are now male. As with the general population, family caregivers are also increasingly culturally diverse. The pervasiveness of caregiving makes it an issue that effectively impacts every family in America.
Due to COVID-19 some people are now caregiving for the first time, and it can be a steep learning curve, especially during a crisis where some resources and support options may be less accessible. Meanwhile, many caregivers are also employed and are caring for more than one person in their life. Needless to say the stress can be overwhelming.
As health professionals, what’s most concerning is that a family caregiver’s health worsens considerably in the first five years of their caregiving journey (Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, 2020). As caregivers focus on their loved one in need, they tend to shift attention away from their own health and wellness. While understandable, this is a critical mistake. Unhealthy burned out caregivers often lead to an increased use in emergency crisis services, and can sometimes expedite the decision to place a loved one in long term care. Not to mention the emotional and mental health impacts it has for everyone involved.
Here in Idaho, we developed a pilot program to intercept caregiver stress by using a care planning and resource referral process. Family Caregiver Navigator is a free service that counsels caregivers on their options, helps them set personal health and wellness goals, and identifies the local resources that can address their needs. Resources could be respite, financial support policies, workshops and trainings or other programs and services. While it’s not a cure-all for the stresses of caregiving, we hope its part of their journey to feeling empowered and supported as a caregiver. A similar program in the State of Washington found that 6 months in the program led to a reduction in stress and depression even when caregiving duties increased. It also found that families who intended to place their loved ones in long-term care were able to delay placement by 21 months and reduce use of emergency crisis services by 20% – All by implementing a plan that identifies resources to assist in reducing their caregiving-related stress (Tailored Care , 2014).
Because of the demands of caregiving, many people take it day-by-day. However creating a plan and developing a support network before a crisis occurs can help you feel more prepared and empowered when the inevitable stressful events and situations do take place. Our Navigators guide caregivers through an extensive assessment and care plan process. But if you’re not in Idaho, you can simplify and adapt this process for yourself.
What can you do to reduce caregiver stress?
(1) Identify your stressors
List the top 5 caregiving-related stressors in your life. Make sure to include your own needs such as “Not having enough time with others” or needs that affect both of you like “Concerns about the financial future”. Next to each stressor, write a positively worded related goal such as “Rebuild my relationship with my friends” or “Feel confident about our financial plan”. You can use the worksheet for this process in the link below this article.
(2) List the support systems and resources
you have that may be able to help you address these stressors and related goals. They could be friends, neighbors or family. Or they could be services, workshops, agencies or programs. Try to be as creative as you can with the possibilities. If you don’t know the right resource, write down the name of someone who may be able to help you identify it.
(3) Take action
It’s important you do not try to do everything on your own or all at once. If 5 goals is too many, start with 3. It’s important that your plan feels achievable. So tell your friends, family or social worker about the plan and enlist their help to execute it, one goal at a time. Whether it’s making a few phone calls on your behalf, doing some research, or providing weekly companionship to your care recipient so you can run errands. You may be surprised at how many people would be happy to help – but you must take the first step of asking for what is needed.
(4) Be Good To Yourself
Caregiving is difficult work even in the best case scenarios, so do not be too hard on or critical of yourself. Even if you’re struggling with tough emotions like anger, guilt and grief. All of them are a completely normal response to a complicated and stressful life change that you never wanted to happen. When everything feels chaotic it can be hard to take a break. However research shows that even taking 1-minute, several times a day to breathe deeply can help lower your blood pressure and release feel-good chemicals in your body (University of Michigan Medicine, 2019). Also keep in mind that maintaining positive self-talk is important for your mental health. Make a list of the things you enjoy doing, and identify one thing you will do for your own pleasure each week. Making time for your personal needs is not only imperative to your own health, it also benefits the person you care for; making you a better caregiver for the years to come.
Written by: Chelsea Smith
Chelsea Smith is a Communications and Project Coordinator for the Center for the Study of Aging at Boise State University. She helped launch the Family Caregiver Navigator project for Idaho residents. She has a background in marketing outreach and program management in educational non-profits. Chelsea has a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota and began her career working in social services before moving into education and public health.
Family Caregiver Navigator – for Idaho residents
Guided Relaxation Meditations for caregivers
Physical Activity Guide for Seniors shared by Sixty+Me