(BPT) - Caring for a loved one with a chronic illness is something millions of Americans do every day. Whether it is a parent, spouse, extended family member or friend, the stress of caring for another adult can take a toll.
"I have to do absolutely everything for her," explains Anthony Cowels, whose 71-year-old wife, Florence, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. As he watched her disease progress, his caregiver responsibilities grew. What's more, for some of the years Cowels also cared for his elderly parents, compounding his responsibilities.
"It has been a long journey of caregiving," says Cowels, 70. "I try not to let it overwhelm me. I always look for ways to do better." Cowels learned to care for both himself and his wife better through useful tools, education and friendship and by joining a caregiver support group. He says he can "interact with others who identify with my situation.”
Family caregiving: A growing trend
Cowels represents a growing number of Americans who care for older or aging loved ones. About 41 million family caregivers in the United States provided an estimated 34 billion hours of care to an adult with limitations in daily activities in 2017, notes the AARP report Valuing the Invaluable: 2019 Update. What's more, as the population ages, caregiving demands are increasing while the pool of potential caregivers is decreasing.
As the Valuing report states, "Americans will have more older relatives or close friends to potentially care for than children in about 15 years. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that, by the year 2035, adults ages 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of 18 for the first time in U.S. history. This fundamental demographic shift is the result of the aging of the U.S. population, increasing longevity, and a declining birth rate. "
Caring for yourself
In addition to helping with self-care activities like bathing, dressing and going to the bathroom, family caregivers today often perform complex medical tasks, including wound care, giving injections and handling medical equipment. The tasks that were once provided in hospitals and health care clinics are increasingly the responsibility of family and friends, who are often given little training or support.
While many family caregivers often report positive feelings in their role such as a sense of purpose or connection with their loved one, it often comes with feelings of being overwhelmed. Exhaustion, worry, loneliness and financial stress are common challenges caregivers face. If you also work a full-time job, it can be even more difficult to balance your needs and responsibilities.
While you may not achieve perfect balance, it is important to prioritize your physical and mental wellbeing, so you can be there for the person you care for. These first steps can help you find some balance as you navigate your caregiver journey:
- Join a support group. Ask your health care provider about local options. Community centers are another good resource. If you live in a remote area or have difficulties commuting, online support groups are another useful way to connect with others in similar situations.
- Make time for yourself. When you care for another person and have your own life demands, it can feel as though there is little time left in the day for yourself. Even if it is just 15 minutes, make time to do something you enjoy, such as walking or reading.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. No one person can do it all. It takes a team to care for someone, especially those with complex medical conditions. You can start by asking your provider about local health care resources and reach out to family and friends for assistance.
It is important for family caregivers to stay mentally and physically healthy so they can provide the best care possible to the growing number of people who need support. For helpful tips and caregiver resources, visit www.aarp.org/caregiving.