Have you ever thought about becoming a caregiver for one or more of your parents? Perhaps even leaving your current job to take just “a short time off” to care for them before eventually returning to the workforce? Well, know that you’re not alone. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, some 65.7 million Americans have served as unpaid caregivers for a family member or other loved. And I’ve met many of them over my career.
Many of these people would attest that providing care for an older family member or other loved one was a rewarding experience that allowed them to share quality time with someone they loved. Likewise, if you’re thinking about caring for your aging parents, you may also take pleasure and pride in caring for those who once cared for you.
However, you’ll want to be aware that taking on the role of caregiver and providing substantial assistance with health care also means that you’ll encounter a number of challenges, as well. Statistics show that caregivers are:
- 79% more likely to have emotional difficulties
- More than twice as likely to experience physical problems (as well as financial difficulties)
- More than five times as likely to miss out on important activities in your own life
- More than three times as likely to suffer lost productivity at work
To protect yourself, there are a number of important questions you’ll want to seriously consider before you take on the role. If you don’t like the answers, it may be time to think about hiring a professional caregiver instead.
Will you be supported by other family members and, if so, to what extent?
You may take on the role of caregiver out of pure love and compassion.
You also may feel it’s your duty after all that they have done to help you.
You may also be taking on the role as other family members have determined that you’re the “best” person in the family to help as you live closer, your job isn’t that “important,” or you just have more “free” time available—even though you may not want or even resent the role.
Either way, if there are siblings or any other family members that plan on having a say in your parent’s care, it’s going to be extremely important to have a frank discussion with them about your duties, time commitment, financial issues and what help (if any) they will they provide.
The Family Caregiver Alliance poses several questions to ask yourself, as well as any other family members that will be involved in your parent’s care. Among them are:
- If you are expected to be the primary caregiver, will any other family members be stepping up to help in any way, or will you be expected to do it all? If they are able to help, how will the responsibilities be divided up?
- Will other family members be okay if your mother or father directly reimburses you for any added expenses that you might incur in taking care of them? These could include living expenses, medical expenses, transportation, and food.
- If your parent needs to move into an assisted living community or nursing home, how will the family make that decision? Who will be in charge of their finances?
- If your parent runs out of money, will any of the family be able to help contribute to their living expenses? If so, how will that count against any possible inheritance such as the eventual sale of their home?
- If you’re not going to be paid, will any resulting inheritance still be divided equally or will you be receiving a proportionally larger share due to your work?
- Also, if you’re not being paid, how are you expected to have any spending money to go out with friends, buy the things you need or provide for your own care?
- If, on the other hand, you are going to be paid to be the primary caregiver, this will mean there will be less available in the inheritance. Should you get a different percentage if you have been paid to do all the work?
Are you prepared financially?
It’s easy to equate any financial loss associated with caregiving to things like a few dollars here and there for gas, wear and tear on the car and even occasionally groceries. However, the financial impact can quickly add up and, in some instances, be quite dramatic. Remember, while taking care of a parent may be a labor of love now, you don’t want to put your own future at risk.
Keep in mind that those “minor expenses” may not be so minor. According to a MetLife survey the average annual caregiver spends $4,368 out-of-pocket for food, transportation, and medications (while another study found that amount to be $5,531). What’s more, family caregivers helped out with these expenses for an average of two to six years, spending a total of $19,525.
Thinking of quitting your job to provide care—even for “a short while”? Certainly, you would see an immediate loss of income—in addition to the new expense of having to pay out-of-pocket costs for your own healthcare. Have you priced that lately? However, that same MetLife study added up some other expenses you might not be thinking of:
. . . the findings of this study show that [caregivers] also need to be thinking about the potential average $304,000 loss to their retirement funds (i.e., wages, Social Security benefits, and private pensions). Since the impact is greater for women (approximately $40,000 more), women, in particular, should think through the impact of quitting their jobs, dropping back to part-time, or taking a lower-paying job because of the flexibility for caregiving it may offer
Changed your mind and instead plan on remaining in the workforce to better afford those expenses while providing care in your “free” time? A MetLife survey found that some 64% of caregivers do just that—with one in four providing 21 hours or more of unpaid care a week.
However, the attempt to juggle the responsibilities of a full-time job with the role of caregiver has additional hidden costs. Respondents to that same MetLife survey also reported that:
- 29% passed up a job promotion, training or assignment
- 25% passed up an opportunity for job transfer or relocation
- 22% were not able to acquire new job skills
- 13% were not able to keep up with changes in necessary job skills.
As a result, the report calculated that:
. . . the loss in average total wage wealth over the lifetime equaled $566,443. Losses in lifetime wealth from Social Security averaged $25,494 and, for those eligible, losses in lifetime wealth from pensions averaged $67,202. The total lost wealth was significant, averaging $659,139.
Can you afford the time commitment?
Depending upon your parent’s needs, your time commitment could range from a few hours a week to several hours a day. However, it’s just as important to look at the length of time over which you will be providing care.
Although the average care recipient’s age is a relatively young 69.3 years, one study found that caregivers spend an average of 20.4 hours a week providing care. What’s more, they have been in that role for an average of 4.6 years. In fact, 31% of caregivers reported that they have given care to a loved one for five years or more.
However, keep in mind that healthcare is always getting better, new treatments are being developed and our nation as a whole is living longer, possibly placing even greater responsibility on you for an even longer period of time.
As a result, you may spend more time away from the workforce than you originally planned. This may make it all the more difficult to return to the workforce in the same capacity as when you left—if at all.
Family caregivers also frequently find themselves “sandwiched” between two generations, which creates a difficult, stressful decision on how to allocate resources of both the time and money you might otherwise be spending with your own children and grandchildren.
Are you psychologically and emotionally up to the job?
In the majority of instances where caregivers are taking care of a loved one, Alzheimer’s, dementia or confusion are recognized as a main problem or illness—with three in ten caregivers reporting that they are dealing with an emotional or mental health problem.
If this is the case with your parent and they can no longer filter their behavior, will you be able to cope with their hurtful words or actions? Or the fact that they may repeatedly bring up the same hurtful issues over and over again?
While caregiving doesn’t cause it and not everyone who provides care will experience negative feelings, studies have shown that caring for someone with dementia makes it twice as likely that you’ll eventually suffer from depression. In fact, one study reported by the Family Caregiver Alliance claims that 60% of family caregivers showed signs of clinical depression.
The Family Caregiver Alliance also notes that:
As stressful as the deterioration of a loved one’s mental and physical abilities may be for the caregiver, dealing with dementia-related behavior is an even bigger contributor to developing depression. Dementia-related symptoms such as wandering, agitation, hoarding, embarrassing conduct, and resistance or non-cooperation from the loved one make every day challenging and makes it harder for a caregiver to get rest or assistance in providing care. The more severe the case of dementia, the more likely the caregiver is to experience depression
If you no longer have a job as your outlet, diversion, and social support network or if you have reduced your “friend time,” you may also be putting yourself at greater risk for “caregiver burnout” The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that:
As a response to increased stress, caregivers are shown to have increased alcohol and other substance use. Several studies have shown that caregivers use prescription and psychotropic drugs more than non-caregivers.
Family caregivers are at greater risk for higher levels of hostility than non-caregivers.
Are you physically up to the task?
If you’re taking on the role of caregiving in great physical health, that will be of immense help to you on your journey. But, when you’re occupied with doctor’s appointments, medication and caregiving duties for your parent, it’s easy to focus on their particular needs rather than your own. This is only compounded if you’ve left the workforce and can no longer afford your own insurance.
Think that won’t happen to you as you’ve always taken care of your health? The Family Caregiver Alliance notes that (72%) of caregivers reported that they had not gone to the doctor as often as they should, and more than half (55%) had missed doctors appointments.
That’s why it’s just as important to focus on your own health as the one you’re caring for. Don’t forget your own regular check-ups, mammograms, Pap Tests, prostate exams, flu shots, and other preventative services.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how much you love the one you’re taking care of, caregiving is going to be a drain on your physical health. Study after study proves this.
One study notes that:
Caregiving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability, has the capacity to create secondary stress in multiple life domains such as work and family relationships, and frequently requires high levels of vigilance. Caregiving fits the formula for chronic stress so well that it is used as a model for studying the health effects of chronic stress
A second study concluded that:
Caregivers also reported chronic conditions (including heart attack/heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis) at nearly twice the rate of non-caregivers (45 vs. 24%)
And the Family Caregiver Alliance concluded that:
Caregivers suffer from increased rates of physical ailments (including acid reflux, headaches, and pain/aching), increased tendency to develop serious illness, and have high levels of obesity and bodily pain.
Studies demonstrate that caregivers have diminished immune response, which leads to frequent infection and increased risk of cancers. For example, caregivers have a 23% higher level of stress hormones and a 15% lower level of antibody responses. Caregivers also suffer from slower wound healing.
The physical stress of caregiving can affect the physical health of the caregiver, especially when providing care for someone who cannot transfer him/herself out of bed, walk or bathe without assistance. Ten percent of primary caregivers report that they are physically strained.
Can you separate yourself enough from your roles as child and caretaker to take care of yourself?
If you’re caring for your mother or father, you’re bringing baggage along with you every time you visit—whether it’s related to your relationship with your parents, your siblings or other family members. That makes your task of caregiving all the more difficult, complex and emotional.
As a caregiver, you may find that your parent won’t follow basic instructions for their own health and well-being. They may not give you the respect you feel you deserve. And, despite your best efforts, their health may only continue to fail.
There are no easy answers to these challenges. The one commonality, however, is that you have to take care of yourself first and accept what you can’t change. You can’t resolve existing family dynamics any more than you can change the medical diagnosis under which a loved one lives.
It’s important for you to be able to step away—whether it’s for an hour, a day or a week—to find support and avoid “caregiver burnout.”
As difficult as it may be for you to consider, the anxieties and worries you are subconsciously transferring to your parents may mean that they will benefit from your absence, as well. As a result, you may even need to hire a professional caregiver.
When you do step away, it’s important for you to separate yourself from the situation you’ve left behind. Visit friends. Go to a movie. Take part in an activity you used to enjoy. By doing so, you’ll enjoy greater peace both along the way and after you have closed the door to your parent’s house behind you one last time.
If need help with any of these challenges, it’s important for you to reach out and get help—whether it’s from another family member or a professional caregiver. It’s been repeated many times within the “industry,” but it bears repeating again.
As a caregiver, your situation is no different than getting on a plane with a child and hearing the instructions about putting on an oxygen mask. You (the adult in charge) need to put on the oxygen mask first. You can’t help the one you’re caring for along the gray mile unless you first help yourself.