Caregivers must safeguard their own health to help others

By American Heart Association News

Dean Mitchell Getty Images
(Dean Mitchell, Getty Images)

Caring for a loved one with a serious medical condition can be overwhelming at times, especially with other obligations at work and home. So, it's important for caregivers to remember to tend to their own physical and emotional health needs, too.

An informal caregiver, who often is an unpaid family member or friend helping a relative or someone with an ongoing illness, is a role that's expected to expand in the years to come as the baby-boom generation ages. In the United States, the cost of caregiving for those with heart disease and stroke is projected to increase from $61 billion in 2015 to $128 billion by 2035.

As this happens, more Americans will need coping strategies.

"It's a time thing," said Dr. Barry London, the internal medicine chair at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. "It can expand to really consume your life."

Make sure others are available to help so the caregiver gets some relief and avoids exhaustion.

Those who are in the caregiver role all the time, every day of the year, such as a spouse, may become particularly isolated from an outside life and face the most pressure. A spouse, London said, is present and invested in helping the patient, which can be trying for the caregiver but also good for the patient.

A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that when patients received a heart-pumping device known a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, the patients reported a dramatically improved quality of life, while their caregivers initially suffered additional stress.

"There's no easy end in sight a lot of times" for the caregiver, London said. "There's a period of, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?'"

When a caregiver must operate or oversee medical equipment there's added worry about something going wrong, possibly even resulting in the patient dying, London said. The more a caregiver can learn about the medical condition, the more confident he or she can feel in assisting.

A survey from the nonprofit foundation Transamerica Institute of more than 3,000 non-professional caregivers in 2017 found that 55 percent of caregivers said their own health took a back seat to the health of the recipient.

Caregivers spent a median of 50 hours per month caring for someone, and 36 percent of caregivers spent 100 or more hours per month, according to the Transamerica Institute survey. More than half were also employed full-time, and most of those had to make some type of adjustment at work because of caregiving duties.

But finding time to take breaks is important, London said. Dedicate time during the day or week to exercise or find something else that's fun to do with the limited time available. And maintain outside relationships so the role doesn't become a "social drain," he said.

Eating nutritiously, getting enough sleep and receiving regular medical checkups are all important. Caregivers also should pay attention to warning signs of depression and talk to health care providers if they need mental health help.

Organizations including AARP, the American Heart Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving offer useful caregiver information, including tips about medical conditions, legal documents and health.

The help is out there informally, in the form of nurses and others who interact with patients, but London believes more should be done in the future to formally support the needs of caregivers.

He also emphasized the importance of the rapport between the caregiver and the care recipient.

"The better the relationship between the patient and the caregiver," he said, "the better it is for both of them."

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