If you have older family or friends who need a helping hand, you may be the one who comes to their rescue. Turns out, there are lots of kindhearted people just like you: Some 53 million Americans provide informal or unpaid care for loved ones who have disabilities.1 And the number of caregivers is expected to rise as baby boomers age.
Many caregivers do it for the joy of helping and the love of those who are dear to them. In one study, almost 90% of caregivers said they felt a sense of happiness knowing their loved ones were well looked after. They also said the experience made them feel closer to the person they were caring for.2 However, caregivers for older adults take on significant responsibilities — whether it be helping your loved one manage their multiple medications, cleaning their house, helping them bathe, or bringing them to doctor’s appointments. The job often comes with long hours and no pay.
There’s a downside to all that pitching in. It can take a toll on your physical and mental health. As many as 70% of caregivers experience symptoms of depression.3 Those who neglect their own health while looking after others may even increase their risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic illness.4,5
“As a caregiver, you’re always focused on others, but sometimes you have to focus on yourself too,” Kevin Lazaruk, RPh. He’s a board-certified geriatric pharmacist based in Los Angeles. “This is self-care. It’s not selfish, it’s smart and necessary.”
If the strain of caring for an older adult is beginning to wear you down, it may be time to think of ways to recharge your batteries and guard your physical and psychological health. This way, you can keep doing your best for the person you love.
1. Make time for movement.
Exercise is good for everybody — especially caregivers. A recent study showed that caregivers who took part in activities such as walking or running, biking, or swimming boosted their mood and lowered feelings of depression.6 Even small amounts of exercise can bring health benefits.7
2. Stay positive.
Easier said than done? Maybe. But you can train yourself to look on the bright side — and see an improvement in your outlook when you do. In one recent study, family caregivers for dementia patients took a six-week training course. They learned different happiness-boosting skills, such as how to recognize positive events, keep a gratitude journal, and track their own personal strengths. By the end of the course, participants had a 7 percent greater drop in depression and a 9 percent greater drop in anxiety compared to those that just filled out a daily questionnaire about their emotions.8
3. Stay connected.
When your life is wrapped up in caring for an older adult, you can end up feeling isolated and lonely, cut off from the friends and activities you used to enjoy. This can be bad for your physical and mental health. Loneliness or isolation may increase your risk of heart disease by 29% and your stroke risk by 32%.9 It’s even connected to poor cognitive functioning10 and may increase your risk of dementia by 40%.11
One of the best ways to cope? A caregiver support group. It’s a great way to make new friends who are walking a similar path, while you share caregiving strategies, swap stories, and boost your own morale.
“Just drawing support and learning from one another can be so powerful,” says Lazaruk. “Knowing that you’re not in it alone is tremendously helpful.”
Find an online or in-person support group through your local hospital or doctor or through the Family Caregiver Alliance.
4. Simplify medication management.
One of the biggest sources of stress that older adult caregivers may deal with is when their loved one takes five or more medications (aka polypharmacy). One recent study showed that about one-third of older adults take at least five pills a day — and that’s not counting over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, vitamins, and herbal supplements.12
Complex medication schedules can add to the stress of caregiver experiences, Lazaruk says.
“We’re all human, so forgetting to give meds or get refills are easy mistakes for anyone to make,” says Lazaruk, “but the consequences can be serious, especially when it comes to behavioral health medicines, which affect a person’s central nervous system.
Getting your loved one’s meds in order doesn’t have to be a source of stress. In fact, there are a number of ways to stay organized and manage complicated medication regimens. Here are some helpful tips:
- Use the same pharmacy for all prescriptions. The pharmacist may be able to catch any medications that might negatively interact with one another. This is even more important when a patient sees several doctors for different conditions. You can also ask your doctor if they’re familiar with precision health companies such as Genomind that offer pharmacogenetic (PGx) testing and precision medicine software, both of which can help provide further information about your loved one’s risk of experiencing adverse drug events (ADEs).
- Schedule a medication review with your loved one’s pharmacist at least once a year to go over all their medications. In some cases, Medicare may even pay for this service.
- Sort your loved one’s medication. “Try weekly pill organizers that you can buy at the pharmacy,” suggests Lazaruk, “or consider having meds delivered that are packaged and labeled for each day and time.”
- Leverage technology. You can also track medications and schedule doctor’s appointments by tapping into tech. Luckily, many of you have a personal assistant right on your smartphone (“Hey, Siri”) or plugged into your wall (“Hey, Alexa”). If you don’t have either of those, try using your timer or downloading a medication reminder app such as Medisafe or MangoHealth, free for Apple and Android users. You can also try free apps such as Caring Village and Lotsa Helping Hands to help you coordinate prescriptions, store documents, and offer a shareable calendar to track appointments.
For someone as caring as you are, it’s not difficult to put yourself out there for your loved one. But it can be a demanding, full-time job that can have real mental and physical consequences.
So when reading this story (or rereading it), remember that it’s not just about your loved one. It’s also about you. In the end, a healthy, happy caregiver will do a much better job. You don’t need to be an expert to know that.
- Number of caregivers in America: Caregiving in the U.S. 2020
- How caregivers feel: Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults (2016)
- Caregivers who experience depression: Anxiety and Depression Society of America (2021)
- Caregivers who neglect their own health: Caregiving stress is a risk factor for coronary heart disease
among middle-aged and older female long-term caregivers (2018)
- Caregivers who neglect their own health: CDC: Caregiving for Family and Friends: A Public Health Issue (2019)
- Caregivers who took part in activities: Annals of Behavioral Medicine (2021)
- Positive effects of 12 minutes of exercise: Harvard University (2020)
- Caregivers training course: Northwestern Now (2019)
- Link between loneliness and heart disease: Heart (2016)
- Link between loneliness and cognitive functioning: Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine (2018)
- Link between about loneliness and dementia: The Journals of Gerontology (2020)
- Study on polypharmacy: The dangers of polypharmacy and the case for deprescribing in older adults (2021)