Help September 2015

Carers—Don’t forget self care

Japan is greying at an unprecedented rate. As it struggles to find solutions to the challenges of a declining population, shrinking workforce and increased healthcare spending, the rest of the world—much of which is ageing at only a slightly slower rate—is watching attentively.

That is the macroeconomic view, comprising millions of individual stories in Japan, and billions of stories globally. Government concerns about how societies will pay to care for ageing populations are mirrored by the concern of the elderly (and middle-aged) themselves: who will care for me?

If we are prudent, we are making financial provisions that will allow us to receive professional care if it is required, but none of us want to concede our independence one day earlier than absolutely necessary.

During that twilight period, when our mental or physical strength is declining but we are not quite prepared to admit it is lost completely, our children may care for us—if we are lucky—or our younger and/or sprightlier siblings. But if our health slides further, particularly in cases of dementia, we may care less about our fates, while at the same time imposing a heavier and heavier burden on our loved ones.

I have written about a time that is hopefully some decades off, but before we climb into our rocking chairs, many of us will have to help our parents climb into theirs.

Everyone’s story is different but, for most of us, caring for elderly relatives will add stress to our lives.

Many of us feel we owe our parents the best possible care as they reach old age, and many of us—for personal or financial reasons—are reluctant to outsource that care to others. Yet, caregiving can be overwhelming, especially when it is added to existing responsibilities resulting from children, partners, employers, colleagues and friends.

Some 7mn people in the UK—about 10% of the population—provide care to family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term physical or mental ill health or disability, or problems related to old age. And, over the next 30 years, the number of carers is expected to increase by around 60%, to 10.4mn.

Writing in the British Journal of Medical Practitioners, Aadil Jan Shah, Ovais Wadoo and Javed Latoo noted: “The impact of caring for someone with mental illness brings the risks of mental ill health to the carer in the form of emotional stress, depressive symptoms or clinical depression”.

Research indicates that depressive symptoms are twice as common among caregivers than non-caregivers, and that women are at far greater risk of clinical depression than men when they are in a caregiver role.

Caregivers, then, must look after themselves as well as those for whom they care. Signs of overload include feelings of isolation, stress, guilt, depression, helplessness, anger and resentment.

Data from the 2011 UK Census show caregivers are more likely than those not providing care to describe their own health as “not good”. In making sure you take care of yourself (or a partner who bears greater caregiver responsibility in your family), it is important to keep yourself in good physical health. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

It is also important to be aware that caregiving will almost certainly occupy an increasing amount of your time unless you organise your responsibilities and get help. You will not be able to do everything yourself, so you need to figure out realistic goals and priorities, then allocate some tasks to willing relatives and friends. Include time in your schedule to allow yourself a break from caregiving, to exercise, see films or spend time with friends and family.

Research has shown that social support corresponds to lower rates of depression and a lower perceived caregiver burden. Family members, friends, as well as social and church groups can all be sources of support for caregivers. But, at a certain point, professional support may be needed. Community resources for caregivers include daytime caregiving services, meal delivery or shopping services, and caregiver support groups.

Abundant research shows that caregivers in general suffer from poorer physical and mental health than their non-caregiving peers. Providing care to others means taking care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it and to accept help when it is offered.