If you're a caregiver, you know you have one of most stressful and most rewarding roles possible. You probably wouldn't change what you're doing, but being a caregiver carries some health risks you might not know about.
With so much about caregiving coming from your heart, it's ironic that your heart is particularly susceptible to the stress and effort of caregiving.
Why are caregivers at risk just by helping others have better lives? They are the ones assisting with daily activities, bringing family members to appointments or on errands, cleaning, cooking, providing meaningful companionship, and often spending countless hours with insurance companies. Many caregivers also have families of their own to care for and jobs to hold down. And whether they live with their loved one or not, they get very little, if any, time off.
Caregivers face many health concerns of their own, including higher risk of heart disease. When personal care activities like exercise, spending time with friends, or having the time to shop for fresh foods and prepare healthy meals are put on the back burner, a caregiver's health can decline. But add in the high stress that often comes with caregiving and the heart disease risks are real and dangerous.
Taking care of yourself is essential for both you and the ones you love. If you fall ill, your whole carefully structured care plan will get turned upside down. Taking care of your own health problems, especially if you have chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, or depression, is especially important because all of those can contribute significantly to heart disease risk. But caring for yourself to prevent heart disease is also important. You'll feel better now and prevent serious problems in the future.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, one third of caregivers suffer health problems of their own but continue to provide care for others. And women are at particular risk. Women who care for an ill or disabled spouse suffer heart disease risk that is twice the risk of non-caregivers.
How can you possibly squeeze one more requirement into your already stressful day? Well, sometimes you can't. But there are times when a little effort goes a long way toward keeping you healthy, and in this case, working at preventing heart disease.
Anything you can do to improve your physical health now will help improve your heart health later. Try your best to get a little more physical activity than what you are getting now. Small things like taking the stairs, parking a little farther away, doing an extra lap around the mall, or simple stretches all add up. They are good for your heart, but the activity also reduces your stress levels.
The American Heart Association advises caregivers to manage stress and care for their emotional health, too. You can't underestimate how hard your job is. It's rewarding, elating, frustrating, and infuriating all rolled into one day (maybe even one hour). Try to do something that relaxes you whenever you can and treasure it. And if you notice feelings of hopelessness or extreme sadness, or even if you find you're much more irritable than you once were, you might be experiencing clinical depression and not know it. Because depression increases your risk of heart disease, getting treated will make you feel better and might prevent heart troubles like heart disease.
Caregivers often feel guilty about needing respite care and consider it somewhat selfish to ask for time off. In truth, regular respite care actually helps prevent problems. If you had an emergency and could not provide care any longer, having some kind of familiar respite care keeps everyone on track. That thought alone might ease some of your emotional overload.
Although getting support like respite care or having coffee with a friend might not seem like heart-healthy activities, they are. When you get an emotional and physical break, your stress levels go down and that's crucial in preventing heart disease.
To learn more about what you can do to lower your risk for heart disease, check out our heart month infographic.