Today’s midlife women should be much healthier and happier than their mothers were in the same life stage, right? Mom was probably less well-educated, didn’t jog or pump iron, and was clueless about how to handle menopause and avoid osteoporosis. Why, then, according to startling findings of a longitudinal study by Gallup-Healthways, do middle-aged American women now have the lowest well-being of any other age group?
One key reason is the physical and emotional stress of family caregiving.
The average profile is a 49-year-old woman who still has at least one child at home and works outside the home while juggling another 20-hour work week caring for an aging family member.
“I already had three jobs before my mother and father-in-law got sick,” says Bonnie Heath. Between dropping off and picking up her two children at different schools, she put in six hours as a substitute teacher, then rushed to her mother-in-law’s home to lift her from wheelchair to an SUV and drive her to physical therapy every day, then back to pick up her father-in-law for an appointment with one of his six doctors.
“I was never home in time to make dinner for my family,” Heath continues. She and her husband David had to give up the long walks they used to take after dinner, their only time to be close. Nine months after they abandoned their walks, Bonnie had gained 50 pounds. Her kids were acting out. Her marriage was shaky. She never saw friends. She staggered through her days in a fog of undiagnosed depression and slept fitfully under a burden of undone guilt.
This commonplace caregiver’s lifestyle is one reason that obesity, smoking, and chronic diseases — including depression — are steadily increasing in midlife women. They are less healthy than their mothers were at the same age. Between 40 and 70 percent of caregivers suffer from clinically significant symptoms of depression, according to the latest data from AARP. Chronic depression contributes to heart disease and degrades the immune system, which protects against all illness.
“If these lifestyles and the decline in well-being continue for women, we will see the first generation of women to begin losing the longevity dividend — five to seven years — they’ve traditionally enjoyed over men,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab at MIT.
What can a midlife woman do in everyday life to inoculate herself against depression, obesity and illness? Reverse the typically negative thought pattern of family caregivers I have interviewed:
- Why am I so alone? In fact, 61 million Americans are performing this most compassionate of roles. The value of their unpaid contribution to the economy has increased in only two years from 385 billion in 2007 to 450 billion in 2009. So, you are not alone. You are the backbone of our broken long-term care system.
- My family member refuses to let anyone but me care for her/him. Call a family meeting, but be sure to have a neutral mediator run it – a geriatrician, social worker, psychoanalyst, or care manager. Make sure your loved one is present. Everyone will hear the same medical facts and be asked what they can bring to the table to assist the primary caregiver so she doesn’t get sick. When Bonnie Heath did this, her husband’s siblings each took a day and the Heaths resumed their nightly walks.
- Why can’t I do anything right? To interrupt the drift into depression, before going to sleep write down three things that went well today and what you did to make sure they went well. This technique has survived placebo-controlled tests and proven to be extremely effective as a guard against depression if it’s done regularly for six months.
- I’m exhausted all the time but I can’t sleep. You need a happy hour, at least one hour, every day, to break the cycle of hypervigilance that keeps stress hormones circulating through your system. Go off and do something pleasurable for yourself. Take a brisk walk or bike ride or a Zumba class. Have coffee with another caregiver, your best source of support. Watch episodes of your favorite comedy show and laugh out loud.
Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.