November is National Family Caregivers Month – a time to celebrate the commitment of caregivers, and also to recognize the critical importance of self-care for these individuals. It’s a time to honor the spouses who sleep on chairs in hospital rooms. It’s a time to salute the partners who cobble together meals from pantry leftovers because they can’t leave their loved ones alone for to go to the grocery store. It’s a time to recognize the adult children who forgo vacations or take leaves of absence from work to care for their parents. It’s a time to acknowledge the siblings who neglect their own physical fitness to shuttle their brothers or sisters to and from physical therapy. And it’s a time to recognize the 15 million Americans caring for someone with dementia, often at a high cost to their own physical, mental, and financial well-being.
This November, as we take time to honor these individuals, it is imperative that we also recognize the need for caregivers to care for themselves. Think of the instructions given when boarding an airplane: “Secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” This applies to caregivers as well. Caregivers who are compromised by stress will struggle to provide effective care, making self-care critical for both the caregiver and their loved one.
Family caregivers say that their responsibilities give them peace of mind and a sense of fulfillment, but they also experience a heavy burden on their physical health, psychological well-being, and finances, particularly if they care for someone with dementia. Depression rates for dementia caregivers are estimated to be 30-40%, compared with 5-17% for non-caregivers of similar ages, and the prevalence of anxiety disorders among dementia caregivers is approximately 44%, a figure substantially higher than the prevalence rate in non-caregiver peers. Financially, 20% of family caregivers reported drawing from their own retirement savings to help pay for dementia-related expenses. And this does not include the indirect impact caregiving has on finances in the form of missed work and lost wages.
Given what we know about the burden and risks of caregiving, we strongly urge family caregivers to adjust their own oxygen masks, so to speak. If you are a family caregiver, especially a dementia caregiver, we encourage you to adopt the following self-care practices:
- Accept help. It can be hard to accept help, especially when you feel that you, alone, are attentive to the unique needs of your loved one. But you can’t do it all, and there are a variety of things that others can do to help. Make a list of things you could use some help with, even if they are simple, and let potential helpers decide what they are willing and able to do.
- Take some time for yourself. Set aside a few hours each week to prioritize your own needs. This might include going out to lunch with friends, taking a walk, going to the movies, getting your hair done, or other personal activities.
- Go to the doctor. Don’t forget about your own health, even if you’re focused on your loved one. Be sure to get regular physicals, schedule your Annual Wellness Visit (if applicable), and seek treatment for health issues that arise from your caregiving.
- Connect with others. Stay in close contact with your social support system and join a caregiver support group, which are available in most communities. Other people can help you to stay socially engaged and mentally healthy, which is critical to providing effective care.
- Live a healthy lifestyle. Do your best to exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, and eat healthy foods. This can be difficult when time is scarce, but if you don’t maintain your own physical health, you may struggle to protect the physical health of your loved one.
All of these steps are essential for you to take control of your health as a caregiver. You must also pay attention to risk factors and figure out what you can do to improve and sustain healthy behavior. One way to do this is to utilize ENRICH: an all-in-one brain health package that includes a brain health awareness effort, a cognitive assessment tool, a launching point for conversations with providers, and a guide to brain-healthy behaviors and cognitive exercises. The ENRICH calculator is available here, and it can be used to understand both your family member’s brain health and your own. We hope that it serves as a valuable tool for caregivers around the US, as we celebrate and support them during National Family Caregivers Month.