Caregivers regularly experience physical health problems and general fatigue. Often they are unable to take time off or allow their bodies the rest they need to recover fully.
In my previous article, I had touched upon the various impacts of caregiving on the many unpaid family caregivers in our society. This article will focus in more detail on a significant and somewhat ironic impact: the effects of caregiving on the physical health of the caregiver. This is significant because ill-health is experienced by high numbers of caregivers and ironic because, in the process of caring for someone who is physically or mentally unwell, the caregivers themselves become unwell.
In a recent survey carried out by Carers Worldwide, 69% of the caregivers (who look after family members with a mental illness or epilepsy) we work with told us they regularly experience physical health problems such as back and general body pain, headaches, coughs and colds that they cannot shake off, and general fatigue. But unlike their neighbours and colleagues, these caregivers are unable to take time off to allow their bodies the rest they need to recover fully. They have to carry on with 24/7 caregiving and their other daily tasks, never having the chance to take a proper break.
Most caregivers do not consult a doctor about these health issues. When asked why, they respond in different ways – “I don’t have the time to go,” “Who will look after my relative if I have to go to hospital?” “I can’t afford to buy more medicine,” “If I could just have a few nights of good sleep, I will be fine.” As an organization, we are working with local doctors to increase their understanding of the existence of caregivers and the harsh realities they face day to day. After all, when the caregiver has brought their disabled child to the clinic, it doesn’t take much of the doctor’s time for them to ask after the health of the caregiver as well. Much of the time, it is awareness and a positive attitude that is needed.
Not all caregivers will be reached in this way though. Awareness and care for the caregiver needs to start in the local community. In my previous article, I asked you to think about the people you know: your relatives, neighbours, friends and colleagues, and whether any of them could be a caregiver. Perhaps you have had a chance to do that and have identified at least one caregiver in your daily circle. But perhaps you haven’t been able to approach them or identify a practical way in which you can help them? It can be difficult to broach the topic – you might not know what to say or how they might react. So, a first step could be to give them some of your time: perhaps offer to sit with the person they care for so they can take some time out. Who knows? This might give them the chance to make a much needed trip to their doctor to check out the recurrent cough or to the physiotherapist to receive treatment for their back pain. You could offer to bring in heavy shopping for them or share a trusted remedy for body pain or fever. Whatever it may be, they will know that you care and that you are there for them. A smile and a caring word can lift fatigue and a practical “How can I help?” can start to lift burdens.
Left unsupported and untreated, the health difficulties experienced by so many caregivers can turn into chronic conditions. As time goes on, the burden on their bodies from the physical pressures of caring, the constant being “on duty” and the lack of sleep often experienced, can result in them being unable to continue giving the level and quality of care their loved one requires. A vicious cycle then begins in which both the caregiver and cared-for spiral downwards, reaching crisis point if nobody intervenes. Before this point is reached for the caregiver you know, please take the first step and make the connection that could reverse the cycle.
In my next article, I will explore the effect of caring on the mental health of the many unpaid family caregivers in our midst and suggest ways that organizations, authorities and society can provide support.
Dr Anil Patil is the Founder and Executive Director of Carers Worldwide. Carers Worldwide highlights and tackles issues faced by unpaid family caregivers. Established in 2012 and registered in the UK, it works exclusively with caregivers in developing countries. Dr Patil co-authors this column with Ruth Patil, who volunteers with Carers Worldwide.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of White Swan Foundation.