Family caregivers do the shopping, make the meals, care for the household, pay the bills, keep track of appointments, and arrange transportation to and from medical visits. They nurse, bathe, feed, and console their loved ones.
In the United States, 65 percent of elders who need long-term care rely exclusively on family and friends to provide that assistance, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. An additional 30 percent rely on family care supplemented with paid assistance.
Though more men are becoming involved in what some social scientists call informal assistance, several studies show that women are the primary caregivers for spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends, and neighbors. Many are elders themselves, struggling with their own age-related disabilities and ailments. Most are middle-aged women, members of the so-called sandwich generation, who juggle caregiving with paying jobs and their own families' needs.
The typical American caregiver is a 46-year-old employed female baby boomer with some college education who works full- or part-time and spends more than twenty hours a week caring for her mother, who lives nearby. She balances family, work, and caregiving duties for an average of 4.3 years, according to a study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.
Caring for the Caregiver: The Basics
Caregivers are less likely to take care of themselves than are most other people, cautions the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging. That puts them at greater risk for infectious diseases (colds and flu) and for chronic illnesses (diabetes, heart problems, and cancer) than most people. Their risk of developing depression is twice that of the general population. Government health experts urge caregivers to care for themselves:
Be wise — immunize. The Centers for Disease Control recommend that caregivers get one influenza vaccine each year and one tetanus booster every ten years.
Don't neglect your health. Schedule a yearly checkup that includes recommended cancer screenings for people your age.
Be sure to tell your doctor you are a caregiver.
Tell your doctor if you feel depressed or nervous.
Take some time each day to do something enjoyable for yourself. Read, listen to music, telephone friends, or exercise.
Eat healthy foods and don't skip meals.
Find and tap into caregiver resources in your community as soon as possible. You may not feel that you need these resources now, but it's helpful information to have on hand for the future.