Celebrating our Caregivers This National Caregivers Day

Celebrated annually on the third Friday in February, National Caregivers Day offers a chance to honor the most compassionate among us. Today, an estimated 53 million Americans identify as caregivers, which equates to 21% of the population. While this number already represents a startling increase from the 45 million caregivers reported in 2015, the rates are only forecasted to grow. As the American population continues to age, so will the number of individuals who require a greater level of care on a daily basis. In fact, the number of seniors who require regular support is expected to double by 2030

Today’s need for ongoing care is so diverse that caregiving takes on many forms. For those who can afford professional services, “formal” caretakers are paid providers who operate either in a home or other care setting, such as a daycare, residential community, or long-term care facility.  These individuals provide valuable services on a professional level and often offer specific areas of expertise to meet unique medical needs. A growing population of Americans comprise the “informal” caregiver category. Unpaid, these caregivers are typically spouses, older children, parents, or family friends who provide vital care for their loved ones, many on a daily basis. 

While more than one-fifth of the population falls into one of these two categories, much of their heroic efforts go unsung. By selflessly assuming the responsibility of caring for another – whether it be through periods of sickness, supporting someone with a disability, or through the aging process in general – Caregivers shoulder a large burden. They provide a safety net and much-needed support for loved ones suffering from physical, psychological, or neurological complications. In fact, their efforts are so valuable, that if they were quantified as paid services, they would equate to an estimated $470 billion per year

There are so many varied ways caregivers altruistically share so much of their time and energy to support others. Not often discussed, however, is a hidden mental health crisis among those struggling with the immense responsibility that comes with caring for another person. As individuals and as mental health professionals, we should honor these caregivers on National Caregivers Day  this Friday, February 18, and support them more consistently through the year ahead. 

Balancing a Career with Caregiving

Caregiving is notoriously demanding – both emotionally and physically. In many cases, caregivers live two lives simultaneously: one for themselves, and another spent overseeing the daily nutrition, exercise, financial, medical, and household responsibilities of the person in their care. By some estimates, caregivers spend at least 20 days out of every month overseeing care for their family or friends. They report spending six days a month grooming, feeding, dressing, bathing, and walking with their patient(s), and 13 days a month commuting, cleaning, doing  the laundry, monitoring medication, shopping, and cooking special meals for their patient(s). An additional 13 hours are spent coordinating visits with physicians, researching symptoms and diseases, and managing finances. 

Despite this tremendous level of responsibility, 86% of caregivers are unpaid – and an estimated 75% work other jobs. Of those with a professional career, nearly 70% report needing to sacrifice at work in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities. This may mean taking extended time off, retiring early, turning down promotions, or even quitting their jobs. As a result, caregivers often experience greater levels of financial stress than the general population. Many caregivers between the ages of 18 and 49 experience higher financial uncertainty – and 18% report experiencing high levels of financial instability and stress as a result of caregiving. 

While it may be important to reassure your manager that work is still a priority, it can help to be forthright about your situation and true bandwidth. Sometimes Human Resources departments can identify policies that promote flexible work schedules so that you can be available to take a loved one to an important doctor’s visit, while still being able to accomplish your work. Oftentimes, managing daily calendars can have the biggest impact for caregivers stretched thin, trying to fit 36 hours worth of activity into a 24 hour day. Family calendars offer greater visibility into everyone’s time and create opportunities to identify efficiencies or areas where siblings and spouses can chip in to accomplish tasks. Back-up plans with trusted individuals are an excellent safety net for emergency and other unforeseen moments. They help ensure that you are ready to delegate work and home life responsibilities to trusted individuals, so that nothing is forgotten or overlooked during moments of crisis. 

While juggling a career and caretaking may mean sacrifice on both sides, there are resources available to help support employed “informal” caregivers. For eligible employees, the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act offers greater flexibility while guaranteeing job security with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for relatives. The government also offers a range of financial resources for Caregivers who provide support for loved ones:

Recognizing Signs of Caregiver Stress

While it may come with surprising moments of joy and deeper connections with loved ones, caretaking is a stressful undertaking. There is a lot of pressure associated with being generally responsible for your loved one’s overall health and well-being. Additionally, the strain of being available and  “on call” all the time, the burden of performing strenuous or stressful caretaking tasks, and the pain associated with watching loved ones suffer or see their conditions deteriorate, results in direct physical and psychological consequences. 

Caregivers note that the responsibility takes a toll: one in four individuals who provide care for loved ones report noticeable worsening of their health since they began taking care. In 2020, only 41% of caregivers reported that their health was excellent or very good, a noticeable decrease from 48% in 2015.  In addition, they report higher levels of anxiety, depression, obesity, and other physical ailments. They are twice as likely to report having developed a chronic disease, including heart attack, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. In some cases, they may need additional care themselves. 

Caregivers are more likely than the average American to report lower levels of personal happiness and well-being, noting that they often have to make sacrifices in their personal lives. When asked about time spent on positive activities, unpaid caregivers report that their caretaking responsibilities directly correlate to a 27.2% reduction in time available for personal hobbies, self-care, or enrichment activities. Many of these respondents report feeling lonely, and 36% describe the situation as highly stressful

If left unaddressed, these feelings may manifest into more serious or long-term mental health conditions. By some estimates, 40-70% of caregivers display clinically significant depressive symptoms – and 25-50% demonstrate major depression. However, as many caregivers defer addressing their own feelings and personal health issues to prioritize focusing on their ailing loved ones, it is important to stay attuned to the most common symptoms of caregiver stress and depression. 

According to Psychiatric Times, the most common symptoms of caregiver stress include: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed, worried, sad, or irritated
  • Sleeping too much or too little – and general fatigue
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Lack of interest in activities once considered enjoyable
  • Social withdrawal
  • Emotional, physical, or verbal abuse, maltreatment, or neglect toward a patient
  • Excessive use of substances, including alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications
  • Frequently falling ill
  • Struggling with suicidal thoughts
  • Struggling with homicidal thoughts toward the person being cared for

How to Show Caregivers that you Care

On February 18th – and all year long – check in on the caregivers you know. Oftentimes, a caregiver may be so preoccupied with his or her loved one’s health that they may not even have the space to process their own stress or burnout. Caretaking is isolating work, and for an individual struggling with the burden, a simple “how are you doing?” can be a lifeline. That inquiry can provide a much-needed opening for deeper conversation. Outreach from a trusted friend  or family member may help them begin to recognize and process any frustration, stress, anger, guilt, hopelessness, or despair they may be feeling. If they are open to it, recommend that he or she speak with a mental health professional for additional perspective and advice about ways they can reduce the stress-induced impacts of caregiving.  

Outside of lending an ear, there are many ways to offer support to the caregivers in your life:

Offer them a break. The pressure to be available at all hours can take a toll and leave even the most optimistic caregiver feeling trapped. To help them reclaim some time for themselves, offer a caregiver a much-needed break. If their patient is mobile, or has a mode of transportation such as a wheelchair, offer to take him or her out for a few hours on a walk. By occupying their patient, you are assuring the caretaker that their loved one will be supervised and mentally engaged. With a few “free” hours, a caregiver can take time to relax, recharge, exercise, and take care of their own personal errands or needs. If you can, offer this support on a recurring basis. 

Contribute to a spa day or other experience. When a loved one is in need of regular attention, caregivers don’t often have the time to take care of themselves. If you are able, help treat a caregiver to a massage, aromatherapy, a manicure, or some time at a spa. Offering rest and relaxation can be a wonderful gift for those who sacrifice so much to take care of others. Treatments can help put the stresses of caregiving in perspective and even promote other healthy behaviors.

Express appreciation. Caretaking is often a thankless role, as he or she selflessly offers so much of themselves to better the lives of others – usually without any acknowledgement or recognition. Take the time to express gratitude for all that a caretaker gives and how much it means to you. Share it within communities and on social media to help spread the narrative and build morale among the caregiver population.

Share resources. The need to support America’s aging population is driving additional forms of funding and legislation. Encourage the caregivers in your life to visit their local agency on aging to learn more about what resources may be available to them. Communities often offer a wealth of knowledge, from classes on specific diseases or memory conditions, to free transportation services with specialized accessibility equipment, meal delivery options, or even subsidized housekeeping services.  

Encourage support groups. Oftentimes, it is easiest to open up and discuss difficulties with others who are experiencing something similar. Encourage the caregivers in your life to join a support group to meet up with individuals who understand the unique strains – and joys – of providing care for those they love. Visit the Family Caregiver Alliance to learn more about their specialized networks of support. 

From COVID-19 to the growing caregiver population, current events are shining a light on the importance of caring for one’s mental well-being.  As the national conversation on mental health continues to evolve, mental health professionals and their agencies are straining to keep up with the demand for their services. EHRs are key to streamlining operations, identifying efficiencies, and freeing up providers’ valuable time for patient care. Our solution offers features designed to help keep your organization’s financial and clinical operations running smoothly, so that you can focus on what you do best, taking care of others. To learn more about how NextStep Solutions is purpose-built to help behavioral health practices operate at their best, contact us today. 

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