An informal caregiver, who is often 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 Boomer generation moves into old age – retiring at a rate of about 10,000 per day.1
For example, 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 2035.2
As this happens, more Americans will need strategies for coping with caregiving duties.
Caring for a loved one with a serious medical condition can be overwhelming at times, especially if you have other obligations at work and home. So, it’s important for caregivers to remember to tend to their own physical, emotional, and financial health needs.
Time crunch and heavy responsibility
The sheer number of hours it takes to assist a loved one may be one of the biggest and most surprising issues when becoming a caregiver.
“It’s a time thing,” said Barry London, PhD, MD, Potter Lambert Chair in Internal Medical of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. “It can expand to really consume your life.”
To safeguard your time, make sure others are available to help when needed so you get some relief and avoid exhaustion.
Those who are in the caregiver role 24/7 every day of the year, such as a spouse, may become particularly isolated from an outside life and face the most pressure. London noted that a spouse caregiver is naturally present and quite invested in helping the patient. While that can be trying for the caregiver, it’s 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.3
“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?’”
Emotional and physical needs
When a caregiver must operate or oversee medical equipment, there is 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.
Finding time to take breaks to do something enjoyable is helpful for a caregiver. If you like to exercise, create time during the day or week to do it. But if you don’t like exercising, it’s better to spend your limited time on something else that’s fun, London said.
Caregivers should maintain outside relationships so that the role doesn’t become a “social drain,” he said.
Caregivers should not ignore their own physical self-care. A survey by the nonprofit 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 care recipient.4
Be sure to eat nutritiously, get enough sleep, and go to your own regular medical checkups. Pay attention to warning signs of depression, and talk to your healthcare provider if you think you need mental health help.
Financial and career costs
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 2017 Transamerica Institute survey. More than half of caregivers were holding down full- or part-time jobs in addition to their caregiving duties. Among those employed during their time as a caregiver, 76 percent made some type of adjustment at their work as a result of their caregiving duties. 4
Additionally, caregivers spent a median of $150 per month of their own money to cover expenses for the recipient. Nine percent spent $1,000 or more per month.4
If caregiving is taking time away from your paid work, that can create financial and career concerns.
Communicate with your colleagues and supervisor to try to create the right situation for yourself on the job. Explore caregiving benefits your employer might offer, such as flexible hours, telecommuting or counseling programs.
Consider all options before deciding to quit or reduce job responsibilities because re-entering the workforce after caregiving ends may prove difficult. Learn more about the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, a federal law which allows for unpaid leave without resigning from your job. 4
As you embark on caregiving, many questions may arise. The nonprofit Transamerica Institute created a free "Comprehensive Guide for Caregivers" that offers tips for discussing legal documents, navigating health insurance coverage, financial support for caregivers, managing caregiving burnout, and more.
Organizations including AARP, the American Heart Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving offer useful caregiver information. Some have specific information about caregiving for your loved one’s medical condition. For instance, the American Stroke Association provides a Caregiver Guide to Stroke.
It may be helpful to connect with other caregivers through support groups or online forums.
London of the University of Iowa believes that the medical system currently informally helps caregivers through nurses and others who interact with the patient, but he said 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.”
Download our checklist on “Self-care Tips for Caregivers” to keep yourself on track mentally, physically, and financially while you’re in the caregiver role.
Things to Consider:
- Try to have a team of helpers to assist so that you can take breaks from your caregiver role.
- Remember to eat right, get plenty of sleep, and go to your own medical check-ups.
- Seek resources from groups that help caregivers, and reach out to your healthcare provider if you feel overloaded by emotional strain.
1 “As Baby Boomers Move Into Old Age, Who Will Care for Us?”, Forbes, August 2018
2 “Caregiving costs expected to more than double, analysis finds,” American Heart Association, August 2018
3 ”Caregivers face strain when patients receive heart pumps,” America Heart Association, March 2018
4 ”10 Alarming Facts About Family Caregivers and Seven Ways to Address Them,” Transamerica Institute, November 2017
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.
Transamerica Institute® is a nonprofit, private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching and educating the public about health coverage and wellness, retirement and other relevant financial issues facing Americans today. It comprises two research centers: Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies® and Transamerica Center for Health Studies®. Transamerica Institute is funded by contributions from Transamerica Life Insurance Company and its affiliates and may receive funds from unaffiliated third parties.