More than one in 10 Americans act as an unpaid caregiver for an older friend or relative. Over the past three decades, thousands of studies have determined that this significant population is at risk of emotional and physical health consequences. In fact, poor caregiver health is one of the top reasons families seek assisted living.
If you care for an aging relative or spouse, be aware of the emotional and physical health consequences. Learn about the health and stress concerns family caregivers may experience and what resources are available to help you balance caregiving with your well-being.
One morning, Jim Colozzo’s 79-year-old mother woke and couldn’t move her legs. Even though her prognosis was grim, Colozzo opted to bring his mom home instead of placing her in a senior living community.
“Do you know what you’re in for?” a doctor asked him.
Colozzo thought he had a pretty good idea. He already lived with his mother and was used to lifting her out of bed and into wheelchairs. However, her sharp decline would significantly increase his caregiving duties. Colozzo knew he’d have to lift his mom throughout the day and help her with activities of daily living, such as showering, dressing, and using the bathroom.
What he didn’t realize was how much being a full-time caregiver would affect his own health.
Research shows caregiving can take a serious toll on one’s emotional and physical well-being, leading to chronic conditions and increased depression and anxiety.
Only four in 10 caregivers would rate their health as “excellent or very good,” according to AARP’s 2020 Caregiving in the U.S. survey. This is a significant drop from the 48% of caregivers who reported very good health in 2015.
This self-reported poor health is backed by medical statistics — 53% of caregivers have been diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disease, or diabetes. That’s 14% higher than the general U.S. adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These chronic conditions contribute to lower caregiver life expectancy.
Family caregivers all over the U.S. have reported similar experiences to Jim Colozzo’s; one way or another, providing care for a loved one takes a toll on the caregiver’s health.
Results of the SCAN survey, a year-long study of 1,000 senior caregivers conducted in 2017, show that caregiving is often associated with guilt:
Family members who provide 20 hours or more of caregiver support a week report increased depression and psychological distress, impaired self-care, and worse self-reported health, according to the Maastricht University study.
Even more, declining health in elderly loved ones directly correlates to heightened caregiver stress levels, resulting in an increase in caregiver stress as their relative ages. Caregiver health is at an even higher risk when caring for a loved one with declining Alzheimer’s or dementia.
As a caregiver, it may feel counterintuitive or even selfish to prioritize your own mental and physical health. However, when left unchecked, caregiver stress can ultimately give way to caregiver burnout, which is often tougher to recover from.
It’s common for an adult child or spouse to insist on being the sole caregiver for a loved one. This is generally out of a sense of responsibility or the belief they’ll be able to provide the best care. But when these responsibilities begin to take a toll on the caregiver’s well-being, the effects can be dangerous for everyone involved.
Caring for his mother at home, Colozzo’s blood pressure rose and his back began to hurt from the constant lifting. One day, he slipped a disc while moving his mom to the toilet.
“I had to put her down fast,” said Colozzo. The sharp, burning pain prevented him from begin able to stand. “She sat on the toilet for two hours until I could find a back brace.”
Colozzo even underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia, fearing he might sleep too soundly after the procedure and miss his mom’s calls for help. But even as his own body fell apart, Colozzo insisted on remaining his mom’s caregiver.
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“She wanted to stay at home. I made a promise, and I wanted to keep it,” said Colozzo.
Colozzo’s collapse from a slipped disc forced him to consider his own health.
“If I got hurt, I didn’t know who would take care of her,” said Colozzo, who later wrote the book “You Got to Do What You Got to Do” about his caregiving experience.
For caregivers in a similar situation, asking for help earlier rather than later is key to avoiding potential emergencies like Colozzo’s. Public awareness around the difficulty of caregiving is increasing, and more resources are becoming available to family caregivers.
In addition to online and in-person support groups, there are many resources available to help reduce the financial and physical burden of caregiving:
If you’re struggling with caring for yourself while supporting an elderly loved one, check out these online resources:
Anwar, Y. (2017, June 26). Dementia patients may die sooner if family caregivers are mentally stressed. Berkeley News.
Crutsen, R., Hajema, K., Kremers, S., Linssen, E., Prevo, L., & Schneider, F. (2018, May 29). Population characteristics and needs of informal caregivers associated with the risk of perceiving a high burden: A cross-sectional study. Inquiry.
National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2020, November). Caregiving in the U.S. 2020: A focused look at family caregivers of adults age 50+. AARP.
National Association of Chronic Disease Directors and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Caregiving for family and friends — a public health issue. CDC.