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Overcoming the catch-22 of caregiving

Cynthia, 62, can barely remember the time before her husband, Jim, 67, started forgetting things and getting lost in their longtime neighborhood. Since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, Cynthia’s days have pretty much revolved around Jim—feeding him, bathing him, dressing him. The man who once managed the finances, brought her bouquets and helped make household decisions is virtually gone, and now it’s up to her to carry on. Her biggest complaint? Loneliness.

Indeed, loneliness is one of the feelings commonly shared by Cynthia and the rest of the estimated 44.4 million family caregivers1 in the United States, a silent workforce that picks up where hospital and nursing-home care leave off. These unsung heroes often provide round-the-clock love and support, frequently sacrificing careers, leisure activities, friendships and other individual needs along the way. Without outside help or resources, caregivers are susceptible to symptoms such as headache, stomach upset, back pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression. One study showed poorer immune function, more respiratory infections and slower wound healing among people caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s than among other people.

If you’re a caregiver, don’t neglect your own emotional and physical health. While that may seem like a catch-22, you can take concrete steps to ensure your own well-being.

  • Accept help. Often, family and friends want to help but don’t know how. The next time someone offers a hand, give him or her a specific job to do. For example, ask him or her to make a bank deposit for you.

  • Treat yourself at least once a week. Use some of those offers of help to buy yourself some free time. Visit friends, see a movie or go to the mall.

  • Stay healthy. You may be so busy preparing special meals for your loved one that you neglect your own nutrition, but it’s important to eat well. In addition, stay active and schedule routine checkups.

  • Don’t overdo the help. One of your goals as a caregiver is to promote your loved one’s independence. If your husband has had a stroke, for example, encourage him to participate in decision making and physical activity as he is able.

  • Learn about your loved one’s condition. The more you understand about how the disease or disability affects your loved one, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with it.

  • Join a support group. You’ll feel better expressing your feelings to others in a similar situation.

  • Investigate community resources. You may be eligible for occasional day-care services, transportation services and other help. Call your local Area Agency on Aging for more information.

Although caregivers frequently report isolation, frustration and a lack of understanding from others, their job is not without rewards. Many discover an inner strength they never knew they had, and their relationship with their loved ones often grows closer.

1 According to an April 2004 report, Caregiving in the U.S., by the National Alliance on Caregiving and the AARP.