An unpaid family member or friend helping someone with an ongoing illness — an informal caregiver — is a role that’s expected to expand in the years to come as the Baby Boomer generation starts retiring at a rate of about 5,900 per day.1
Unpaid family caregiving is on the rise in the U.S., with 41 million caregivers providing the equivalent of approximately $470 billion in unpaid assistance.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 Dr. Barry London, Ph.D., M.D., the 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 in the caregiver role around-the-clock, such as a spouse, may become particularly isolated and face the most pressure. London said a spouse caregiver is naturally present and quite invested in helping the patient. While that can be trying for the caregiver, it’s good for the patient.
A recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation found that many individuals living with heart failure rely on unpaid caregivers to help them manage their chronic condition. Many of the tasks undertaken by these caregivers previously would have been managed by healthcare professionals in clinical settings. The care provided is of great clinical and economic value, but many of these caregivers experience negative impacts on their physical, psychological, social, and financial health.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 they can feel in assisting.”
“Finding time to take breaks to do something enjoyable also is helpful. 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,” recommended London. “Caregivers should also maintain outside relationships so the role doesn’t become a social drain,” he said.
While caring for others, caregivers should not ignore their own physical self-care. A recent report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP based on a national survey of 1,392 non-professional caregivers found that caregiver health has declined over the past five years, with one in five caregivers reporting their own health to be fair to poor. Caregivers with the more demanding responsibilities also have the greatest reported decreases in health.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 health care provider if you think you need mental health help.
Financial and career costs
Caregivers spent an average of 24 hours per week caring for someone, and those who live with the patient report providing over 37 hours of care each week.4 More than 75% of caregivers were holding down full- or part-time jobs in addition to their caregiving duties. In fact, caregivers worked an average of 36 hours outside of their caregiving responsibilities. 4
Caregiving that takes time away from your paid work can create financial and career concerns. This is a common challenge faced by some caregivers. In fact, about one in five caregivers experience varying levels of financial strain related to their caregiving responsibilities.4
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 could be 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.5
As you embark on caregiving, many questions may arise. The nonprofit Transamerica Institute has a free "Comprehensive Guide for Caregivers" that offers tips for discussing legal documents, navigating health insurance coverage, financial support, managing burnout, and more.
Organizations including AARP, the American Heart Association , and the National Alliance for Caregiving offer useful information. Some have caregiving information about specific medical conditions. 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. Dr. London believes 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 health care provider if you feel overloaded by emotional strain.
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 health care 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 Resources, Inc. is an Aegon company and is affiliated with various companies which include, but are not limited to, insurance companies and broker dealers. Transamerica Resources, Inc. does not offer insurance products or securities. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical or financial advice or guidance. Please consult your personal independent professionals for answers to your specific questions.
1 “Baby Boomers are staying in the labor force at rates not seen in generations for people their age,” Pew Research Center, July 2019
2 “California, Texas Caregivers Offer Billions in Free Care,” USNews.com, November 2019
3 “Family Caregiving for Individuals with Heart Failure,“American Heart Association, June 2020
4 “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020,” The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, May 2020
5 “The Employee Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act,” U.S. Department of Labor, 2020