Taking Caregiving to Heart

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Caring for yourself while caring for others is an important — and often neglected task. So this Valentine’s Day, save a little love for yourself by following these crucial steps to heart health

It’s February, and while a tremendous winter’s chill has gripped much of the country, this is the month we celebrate warm, heartfelt love. While most of you may think I’m talking about Valentine’s Day,  I am actually focused on those family members performing that “labor of love:” caring for a parent, spouse or other loved one who has a chronic illness, disability or is simply just getting older.

So while love is in the air and red hearts are in every storefront window this month, the hearts I am more concerned about are those of the caregivers and their own health.

The American Heart Association tells us that heart disease is the number one killer of women – twice as many women die from stroke or cardiovascular disease than all cancers combined, including breast cancer. To raise awareness, the AHA promotes its “Go Red for Women” campaign, launching this month.

And, while all women must pay attention to maintaining their heart health, studies show that caregivers have twice the risk of developing a chronic illness such as heart disease, based in part on the prolonged stress they encounter during their caregiving journey.

Unfortunately, the challenges that caregivers face when they take on the role of caring for a loved one can prohibit or prevent them from finding the time to care for themselves. This is the big red flag we have to wave this month to help caregivers find the time to avoid the minefields that blow up their own self-care plan.

For instance, a study from the National Alliance for Caregiving on caregivers whose health has declined since they started caring for a loved one shows:

  • Stress is a caregiver’s #1 issue and 91 percent report also suffering from depression
  • 72 percent of these caregivers neglect their own doctor and dental appointments
  • 10 percent adopt or resume bad behaviors such as smoking and they misuse alcohol or prescription drugs to cope
  • 87 percent report getting less than eight hours of sleep a night and have less energy
  • Almost four out of 10 said they have had weight loss or gain

Here are the five AHA tips for women aged 50 and over to review when it comes to keeping your heart healthy:

  1. Know your family history. You have a greater risk if a parent or grandparent had heart disease. In fact, a new study released this month shows that a mother’s stroke history can help predict her daughter’s risk of heart attack or stroke.
  2. Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
  3. Drink in moderation. While alcohol adds calories to your diet that can cause weight gain and your blood pressure can increase if you drink too much, four-fluid ounces of red wine a day can be all right according to some physicians.
  4. Eat a heart healthy diet – lots of fruits, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon or trout and fiber-rich whole grains. Also, stick to less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.
  5. Know your numbers. Do you know what your good and bad cholesterol numbers are and what they should be? How about your Body Mass Index (BMI)? Are you getting at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise a day? Do you have a waist measurement of 35 inches or less? If you do not know your numbers, find out today and then check the Weight Control Information Network, maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health, to find out what these numbers mean and how to maintain healthy scores.

Doing all the right things is hard enough for the average woman, but when you are caring for a loved one, it becomes an even more daunting task. When I have spoken to caregivers, they say to me, “Give me a break – literally! How can I find time to exercise or get more sleep? I don’t even have time to take a shower and I eat standing up in the kitchen because I have no time.”

Yes, it is hard. This is where the love comes in. Caregivers are giving love to their loved one, leaving precious little time to love themselves. So, if you have a mother, spouse, sister, friend, neighbor or co-worker who is a caregiver – what kind of Valentine’s wish can you send their way this year? Three ideas:

  1. Give respite: Give the caregiver you know a break so they can take a walk, get to a yoga class, take a nap, etc. If their caregiving journey looks like a long one, create a Lotsa Helping Hands community online, where other family and friends can volunteer to give them break through a private calendar-centric community.
  2. Healthy heart help: Bring the caregiver in your life some heart healthy groceries – all cut up or in ready-to-eat freezer bags or snack bags. Make it easy for them to stay on track with good nutrition.
  3. Have a laugh: The power of humor is scientifically proven. Having a good laugh at least once a day releases endorphins that enhance mood and have even been show to boost immune systems. Call the caregiver you know and have a good chuckle.

Sometimes it’s hard to find that balance between self-care and caregiving. But, by taking care of your heart health, you will ensure you continue to be the heart of your family. And, as a friend to a caregiver, warm their heart this month with an act of kindness and support. It will do both your hearts some good.

Editor’s Note: Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers, with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is a consultant, media contributor, and frequent guest speaker on the nation’s baby boomers  who has been featured on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, ABC World Evening News, MSNBC, and CNN, as well as in the New York Times, USA Today, PARADE, Prevention, and WebMD.

6 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    All of these words are well thought out, well written.  However, the normal caregiving situations I have been involved in do not last weeks or a few months.  They go on for years.  Friends and family with good hearts may try their best to help in the short range but find it a task that is too much to handle usually to continue doing it month after month.  It is hard to make jokes on the phone when the caregiver really only needs someone to listen and listen some more.  They want someone to care, someone to confide in.  There are no answers normally and they seem to expect none — but sharing allows them to hold in and move on.

    In my experience, when taking care of someone who has had a stroke, has Alzheimers, needs physical care night and day, the money runs out for outside help when months run into many years.  Three of my good friends – healthy women not that old when their caregiving began, actually passed away before their spouse.  The tolls of night and day care, lifting, receeiving abuse from a spouse who no longer knows what he is doing, and just plain exhaustion night after night becomes too much. 

    A helpful solution in adult day care – giving the caregiver some time alone.  Families – for the most part – seem to “assign” the relative closest to the ill person to do all the care.  From what I hear, there are occasional calls that say “How is Mom?”  — but rarely is the caregiver thanked for the constant service they are giving.

    We can write all we want as to what can be done.  It is a very different story when you become the caregiver over a long period and find that even “your real friends” cannot be nursemaids as much as they feel sorry for you. 

    I don’t know what the answer is but suggest that very often one of us will find that we will begin that role.  Therefore, we should get out every day while the sun shines and we are free NOW so we amass a ton of memories that will help hold us through what is often a living hell later — if we last that long.  And that is truth.

  2. avatar Mary says:

    Joan, I think you have a good grip of the reality of Caregiving.  As a professional in the field I see the total picture every day.  Rarely is any caregiving role a textbook picture of how things will be.  Of course all of the advise that Ms. Snelling writes is good advise but it is only the tip of the iceburg.

    Most likely the caregiving role will fall on one offspring with other siblings roles being in the very deep background.  The only person who will be aware of the truth of a situation will be the primary caregiver.  They will be not only taking care of the parent or family member physically, but they will be constantly dealing with dr. appointments, medication issues, transportation issues, errands, and quality of life issues.  Then there are the mental issues of seeing definate changes in mental status, emotional issues, confusion, wandering, falling, preventing falling, new surroundings, new people in their lives, and having to trust others when the caregiver needs to rely on others.    One can eat healthy, exercise, spend time with their friends and family away from caregiving, not smoke, not drink etc etc etc. but, the mental drain and physical drain is still going to be there.

    Each situation is different and each caregiver is different.  We are only beginning to see the future of the needs we will have and do have as the population of elderly swells.  Solutions need to be found and researched before the crisis is a crisis.  Here are some of my suggestions.

    Before you find yourself in a caregiving role:   Evaluate your resources.  Are there funds available and if so, what are you going to be able to afford.  Can you afford a hour of outside help a day, or 24 hours of care?  What is available in  your community to tap into?  Does your church have active volunteers that will spend time with your parent on a weekly or monthly basis?  Is there a Senior Center?  Does the Senior center have a day program?  Do they offer meals on wheels?  Are there nursing homes in your area that have day programs?  If so, do they offer a menu of services?  Does your insurance cover this and if not how much can you afford?  Look at not only financial resources but family and friend resources.  Can you afford to increase medicare by adding extended care?  If you are below income for medicare levels, what will medicaid pay for.  Often people are surprised by the answers.

    Is there a nursing school nearby where a student nurse may be happy to have  live in situation and be paid a small amount in exchange for room and board?    Resources need to be taken into consideration even if they are not the obvious.  Small resources can mean a lot and should not be dismissed.  For every meal that is delivered to a door, the caregiver has a few extra minutes a day for themselves. 

    I actually have faith that as we grow in numbers of needs and as nursing homes lose favor in long term care, solutions by means of new business and new professions will grow.  In my humble opinion we need to work on those now.   Yes the above by Ms. Snelling is great advise but it is common sense and advise that is given a dime a dozen,  we have to look deeper.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Mary — one can talk all the want about caregiving and give the easy answers that mean little when you are the one that finds themselves deep in the throes of being said caregiver.  Very often this role is not one we even dreamed of or talked about.  We are living our lives, going to work, and then overnight we receive bad news and life will never quite be the same again.  We – the caregiver – is thrown by this, scared, ill equipped for what lies ahead.  Maybe we should have looked ahead — but often we think that this will never happen to us.  Doesn’t this happen to other people??  Or we thought illness just happened to old people, not our husband at 55. 

      We are busy coping with the next moment, hardly having time to sleep — so how are we to somehow find the resources to help us?  We are newbies on the job — and looking ahead with trepidation — and scared.  As time goes on — with help or not — there is hardly anyone whose good health has not taken a turn for the worse – but sick or not, we must continue.

      Mary, all your own thoughts are complete and right on.  It is NOW that this growing situation that is going to be long and longer long-term for many — and US — needs to be turned around.  We want to have exact names and numbers, the best articles, the talk of the financial end in our hands before this happens or as soon as this happens.  We have to know the options — every one of them.  The longer our situation goes on, the less we are physically able to even deal with making choices or finding there are few or none. 

      This is a major problem that we would like to shun.  But we dare not — as I have found that we have found a new role in life – caregiver — sooner or later, like it or not.  Joan

      • avatar Mary says:

        Joan, I also think that our focus is not on the correct issues of caregiving.  Politics force us to think of medicare and medicaid as neccesary evils and we rely heavily on them.  Not that they are bad things but, they are outdated things.  The main problem with them is that folks don’t realy know much about them and when they are forced to know about them they find that their situations do not fit those molds.  What we need to do is force change in those systems so that they include caregiving and not exclude it.  When that happens we can look at more efficient and productive ways to care for our family members and each other as we age.  Years ago when the medicare system was put in place it was a good idea and regulatory agency that basically took care of those who were in need of nursing home services and long term illnesses of aging.  But, times have changed.  We got smart about aging and long term care.  We know that people do better at home in most instances and we know that to the point that nursing homes are now almost 50% of the time used as rehab facilities for short or temporary care until a person can return home.  When a person returns home our society forgets that everything will primarily fall to one person and then we spiral out of control because instead of now dealing with the original ailing person we have a long term problem taking care of the caregiver.  We could do it so much better and we must do it better.  All signs point to the statistics and to what every caregiver knows to be true, but the system is outdated and we are stuck in a vaccum of how the system drains the economy and not how it could be beneficial and economical for much more of the population than it is.   A bigger crisis is looming if we don’t figure it out soon.

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Caregivers know they have to care for themselves or just about everything around them could collapse. This article does not reflect the reality of being a long term caregiver. Those of us who have been in it for the long haul know that self-care is important but the actuality is that we do far more than just care to keep our lives and those of our family on track. We often work an outside job and are responsible for most of the house and yard work in addition to caring for our children. If we have any sort of income we are not eligible for federal programs designed to help the handicapped.
    I have been a caregiver for well over twenty years and developed a routine that works for me. I will be blunt and say that this would not work for other families unless their needs and responsibilities matched mine. There is no one size fits all in any care situation we have to constantly tweak the way we do things and adapt. I started out caring for my husband when he developed Myasthenia. He was easy because he tried to help himself. It was still a lot of effort because there were so many things he couldn’t do because of muscular weakness. Everything changed when we took in my father-in-law. He had broken his upper arm in an accident and had the beginning of dementia. He was demanding rarely slept more than two to three hours at a stretch and couldn’t be left alone. He had temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way and cracked my hip slamming a car door on me when I didn’t get his walker loaded fast enough for him. Our salvation was his being accepted into a Veterans Home. I find it hard to follow fluffy advice in the trenches with very little help.

  4. avatar D C says:

    When my mother was dying (Lymphoma) I missed a few things, like my annual well-woman exam.  When I went back the next year (Mama had passed), my doctor asked me what was so important that I had to miss my exam?  I replied, “I was doing my internship in geriatric oncology.”  After explaining what that meant, he apologized, and asked after her.  And then he apologized again.  He was kind of a smarty-pants smooth talker anyway, and I had already tired of him.  It was kind of nice to finally shut him up.  I found a new doctor the next year.