A recent local news broadcast featured a local man who is a full-time caregiver for his wife, who is in the advanced stages of a chronic illness. Each year, he attends an Ohio State football game (a huge deal in this area) with his adult son. A volunteer from an association that supports the illness (in this case, multiple sclerosis) stays with the man's wife to facilitate his attendance at the football game.
I liked that the news covered such an event: it spotlighted an important issue that most people don't think much about. People who care for ill partners, parents, other family members or friends desperately need a break. Studies have shown that the stress level for these folks, both emotional and physical, is off the charts. In a research article from The Ohio State University, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a nationally-known authority on caregiver stress, says that caregiver's life spans are actually shortened by the stress they experience.
“Caregivers showed the same kind of patterns present in the study of mothers of
chronically ill kids,” Glaser said, adding that the changes the team saw
amounted to a shortened lifespan of four to eight years. "We
believe that the changes in these immune cells represent the whole cell
population in the body, suggesting that all the body's cells have aged that same
How can caregivers take care of themselves? In an AARP article, Managing the Stress of Caregiving, the following tips are offered:
"Take Care of Your Health
- Eat nutritious meals. Don't give in to stress-driven urges for sweets or drink too much alcohol.
- Get enough sleep. If you are kept up at night, try a nap during the day to make up some sleep.
- Exercise regularly, even if it means finding someone else to provide care while you walk or go to exercise class.
- Get regular medical checkups. If you have any symptoms of depression (extreme sadness, trouble concentrating, apathy, hopelessness, thoughts about death), see a doctor right away. Depression is an illness that can, and should, be treated.
- Make a list of jobs you need help with. They could include household chores, home repair or maintenance, driving, paying bills, finding information on services you need. Maybe it's simply giving you a break by staying with Mom while you get away for awhile. Ask friends, neighbors and other family members if they could give some time to helping out.
Maintain Social Contacts
- Isolation increases stress. Having fun, laughing, and focusing on something besides your problems helps you keep your emotional balance."
What about taking a much-needed break? There are services that provide respite for caregivers. Adult day-care centers can provide care during the week for patients. Volunteers at church organizations will offer to visit and give the caregiver a break. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, More Resources Help Caregivers Help Themselves, an estimated 45 million people care for a loved one. The article states that new evidence is showing that caregivers can better manage if they are given access to resources, such as "counseling sessions, in-home skills training, support groups and assistance juggling care responsibilities."
It makes sense that the strain of caregiving is especially difficult during the holidays. With everyone busy and celebrating, the usual resources may be unavailable. The WSJ article offers a list of Web sites for organizations that can help:
What can you do to help out a caregiver? Offer to give them a break by arranging someone to stay with the patient while you take them to lunch or out shopping for holiday gifts. Or stay with the patient yourself to allow the cargegiver a well-deserved day off. It's important to ask specifically what you can do. A vague offer "to help" isn't really helpful. There is probably a long list of things you can do.
So extend an offer to a caregiver. Your assistance will be invaluable.