Caregiving is hard work. While many caregivers feel that it can be a rewarding experience, there are definitely challenges that have to be faced on a day-to-day basis. One of these challenges is the toll that care work can take on body and mind. The demanding nature of caregiving can cause caregivers to neglect their own health in favour of the health of their loved one, which can have serious consequences. The stress of caregiving and a lack of support can lead to mental health issues if untreated. Additionally, the strain of care work can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of developing chronic conditions, especially since caregivers go to the doctor less often.
Many caregivers often neglect healthy behaviours in favour of unhealthy ones, and their health suffers as a result. Many of these behaviours are related to sleep, exercise, and diet. Caregivers often don’t get enough sleep due to the long hours they have to spend looking after their loved one. In addition, many caregivers are stressed and anxious, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Exercise, too, is often neglected by caregivers. Caregiving is exhausting, which leaves many caregivers too drained to exercise when they finally get some free time. A poor diet is also common among caregivers. Many caregivers feel that they don’t have the time to prepare healthy meals so they tend to eat frozen dinners or other foods designed for convenience over nutritional value.
It’s well known that caregivers are at heightened risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that 40-70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression and that depressed caregivers are more likely to have coexisting anxiety disorders. These mental health issues stem from the fact that caregiving can be very difficult, and that many caregivers receive little to no support. It’s common for caregivers to feel stress, anger, and loneliness on a daily basis. Many caregivers also receive little to no recognition or thanks from their loved one from their hard work, which further compounds these negative emotions. When caregivers experience these emotions daily for months and years at a time, it can have serious effects on their mental health.
Caregivers tend to have weaker immune systems than non-caregivers. The American Psychological Association states that caregivers have higher levels of stress hormones and lower levels of antibody responses. This can lead to a poorer immune response, which can make the body more vulnerable to infections. It can also increase blood pressure and glucose levels, which results in caregivers having a higher risk of conditions like coronary heart disease and diabetes than non-caregivers. A study by the Commonwealth Fund found that 60% of caregivers experienced fair or poor health status, one or more chronic conditions, or a disability, compared with 33% of non-caregivers. Chronic conditions in the study referred to heart attack, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Caregivers often prioritize the health of their loved one over their own health. It’s common for caregivers to go to the doctor less often or miss appointments because they feel that they’re too busy caring for their loved one. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that 72% of caregivers state that they don’t go to the doctor as often as they should, and 55% have missed doctor’s appointments. This can have serious health consequences, as caregivers are already more likely to have weak immune systems and chronic conditions. Putting off doctor’s appointments can cause a caregiver’s health to get even worse. In addition, due to the financial stress of caregiving, caregivers are twice as likely as non-caregivers to not fill a prescription due to the cost.
Caregivers should do all they can to prevent the negative health consequences that care work can cause. Unhealthy caregivers won’t be able to care for their loved ones as effectively, so they should ensure they take care of themselves as well. A healthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits are extremely important, as are proper self-care routines. Self-care helps reduce stress and decreases the likelihood of mental health risks and caregiver burnout. Regular visits to the doctor are also essential for caregivers, as they help ensure small health issues don’t develop into bigger ones. By being proactive about healthcare and proper lifestyle habits, caregivers can effectively fight back against the negative health consequences that can arise as a result of care work.