Caregiving Stress Part II: It hits women the hardest

The health profession defines caretaker’s stress syndrome as a debilitating condition brought on by unrelieved, constant caring for a person with a chronic illness or dementia. It is beginning to be recognized as a serious health issue, but it is still rarely discussed. The medical profession has only recently become aware of the toll that caretaker’s stress is taking on so many of our informal caretakers. It is also recognizing that the toll is falling most heavily on working women, wives and mothers.

In past generations, caretaking was primarily the wife’s role; earning a salary, the husband’s. But the situation is changing. Now almost 60% of U.S. women work outside the home. Although husbands are pitching in for childcare and housework, they are not as apt to step forward and care for the family’s senior members. When there is elder care to be done, it is still primarily women who do it.

All this is happening at a time when our population is aging. Parents and grandparents are living longer. More and more of them need help with basic living tasks. There is, admittedly, a trend toward families finding new homes for the elderly in nursing and assisted-living facilities, but it is considered a last resort and still far from the norm. According to the most recent figures, well over half– 65%– of seniors with long-term health care needs rely exclusively on family. And women provide, by some estimates, 75% of it. Statistics aren’t available for Alaska but on a national level, the average female caregiver is 46 years old, married, working outside of the home and earning an average income of $35,000. She is apt to be caring for children and most likely, overwhelmed. The constant, unrelieved stress is making her ill.

Health care professionals are gaining an increasing awareness of the impact which caring for the elderly or disabled can have on the health–both physical and emotional– of the caretaker. At its most extreme, it can be as serious as the military’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression and anxiety attacks are the warning signs often followed by high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and a compromised immune system.

However, it’s not caretaking per se that is causing distress. Women who care for children are fine. In contrast, caring for seniors is taking its toll. Women who care for elderly relatives are twice as likely to suffer from depressive or anxious symptoms. And it is at its worst for women caring for Alzheimer and dementia patients. In a recent study covering an 18-month period, self-rated health scores by women caretakers declined by 38%, personal use of health services increased by 25 percent, while visits to the hospital and to emergency rooms doubled.

Researchers speculate that much of the toll elder-caretaking takes on women is due to their tendency to become emotionally involved. They are less able than men to detach and compartmentalize. So, according to researchers, their worsening health is due to the grief associated with their loved one’s decline. When the relationship between the caregiver and care recipient involves deep and complicated emotions, experiences, and memories, it places the female caregiver at high risk for psychological and physical illness. To care for a beloved family member who is becoming incontinent and occasionally aggressive; who is losing the ability to recognize faces; is sleepless and becoming increasingly apt to wander off into the night–sometimes the stress and sadness of it all becomes more than women can bare.

Even if the elderly patient is mentally intact, there can be caretaking pressure that can cause almost unendurable stress. Many older adults, for instance, are being sent home after hospitalization while still dependent on devices intended for someone with special training—respirators, suction devices and catheters. In one study a caregiver reported that a nurse told her, “Now I’ll show you how to do it, and if you don’t do it right he could die.” We can only imagine the stress.

Midnight Sun Home Health Care is concerned about the health of our community, including not only Alaska’s disabled and senior citizens but their caretakers as well. We recognize that we all feel the deep and visceral need to provide care for our families. We, as Alaskans, can be especially independent-minded, and our instinct may be to go it alone. Midnight Sun Home Health Care provides an alternative for you: continue being strong for your family, while we excel at offering the additional care your loved one needs.

This is our message to all Alaskans and especially to Alaska’s caretaking women: Before you reach the end of your rope and put your health at risk, give us a call. We know what you’re going through and we can help. Together we can make it work, yielding positive results for all involved.

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