Caregiver Stress And The Sandwich Generation

I’m planning to give a talk on caregiver stress in a few weeks, and I figured I’d ask my lovely readers to help me make this talk awesome.

What is a caregiver?  A caregiver is defined as someone who provides care for another person in need.  Generally the person being cared for is unwell in some way and needs help with daily tasks.  Those with cancer, dementia, and many other chronic conditions may need help with dressing, bathing, eating, medication management and other critical tasks.

Who are our nation’s caregivers?  According to womenshealth.gov, over 20% of adult Americans will provide unpaid care to an elderly or disabled person each year.  61% of informal or family caregivers are women, and most are middle-aged.  59% of women who provide informal care to a family member are also employed. Over half of these employed female informal caregivers have made changes at work to accommodate caregiving, such as scaling back their work hours or changing their schedules.

There is an interesting term to refer to those providing informal or family caregiving:  The Sandwich Generation.  There are several types of Sandwich Generationers:

  • Traditional Sandwich – those caring for both aging parents and their own children
  • Club Sandwich – those caring either for both aging parents and their own adult children and grandchildren (4 layers!) OR aging parents and grandparents and their own children
  • Open-Faced Sandwich – anyone else involved in informal caregiving

Sandwich generation caregivers have an extra level of stress because they have competing priorities.  There is only so much time and they often feel they can’t do justice to any single task because they’re pulled in so many different directions.

Caregivers have definitely Got Stress.  How does one know when caregiver stress is becoming unhealthy?  The Alzheimer’s Association has a lot of information on their website about caregiver stress and burnout.  Symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, trouble concentrating, depression and anger.  Caregivers may be in denial about their loved one’s illness.  They may withdraw from friends and family, have trouble sleeping and feel exhausted.

Caregivers’ own health may suffer due to stress and burnout.  Researchers at the CDC found that 20% of caregivers surveyed rated their own health as fair or poor.

If you are a caregiver and find yourself struggling with stress and burnout, what can you do about it?  Better yet, if you find yourself (or know someone else who is) in the caregiver role, how can you minimize the risk of burnout?

  • Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t do everything.  Recognize you’re only human and be gentle with yourself.
  • Look for resources.  Check with the local Area Agency on Aging to explore what services are available near you.  There may also be disease-specific resources and services available.
  • Be proactive and take a problem-solving approach, rather than worrying and feeling helpless.
  • Do your best to take care of yourself.  Exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep.  See your doctor for your annual physical and other scheduled visits.  Remember, you can’t take care of others if you’re not well yourself.
  • Actively practice proven stress reduction strategies.  Meditation and yoga are good options.  Check out this recent post about Sudarshan Kriya Yoga.  Go to church, temple or other religious services regularly.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask other family members for financial help if you need it.
  • Ask for and ACCEPT help.  Have a mental list of things people can do and let them choose one.  For instance, a sibling can take Mom for visits on weekends to give you a break.
  • Be realistic and don’t be afraid to say no if you can’t commit to something.  Someone else will be able to chair the PTA and run the fundraiser.
  • Stay in touch with family and friends.  Isolation makes stress worse and accelerates burnout.
  • Keep a sense of humor!

I want to make sure you realize that there are significant upsides to the caregiver role too.  Many of my patients are providing care to aging parents and grandparents and find it incredibly rewarding.  For instance, one patient was the full-time caregiver for her father until he passed away in his 90s.  She has told me it was wonderful being able to share that time with him, knowing the time was limited and coming to a close.  Focusing on the blessings rather than the trials and keeping her (boisterous!!) sense of humor helped her keep burnout at bay.

Research has also shown that the healthiest and longest-lived people on Earth tend to live in multi-generational households.  Maintaining close relationships between generations is good for your health and for society.  One of my friends is a caregiver for her grandfather who has Alzheimer’s disease.  She is homeschooling her son and they spend the day together as a family.  Her grandfather is fascinated by his great-grandson’s schooling and the little guy adores spending time with him every day.

Providing family caregiving services to an elderly or ill family member is stressful, no doubt about it.  Caregiver stress is common and falls largely on women.  It doesn’t have to lead to conflict, burnout and physical illness though.  Acknowledging your limitations, asking for help, practicing good self-care, and seeking out the positive can help keep you healthy and make caregiving a rewarding experience for you AND your loved one.

QUESTION:  Are you providing caregiving services for someone you love?  What are you struggling with, and what helps you manage?

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