According to the Mayo Clinic, one in three adults External Site in the United States provides informal, unpaid care to family members or friends who are aging, chronically ill, or disabled. This includes 12 percent of U.S. parents who are part of the “sandwich generation” Opens New Window — people who care for both their child(ren) and a parent over the age of 65.
If you’re not a caregiver, chances are you probably know someone who is. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased both the amount and stress of caregiving. A survey from ARCHANGELS® External Site reports more than half of current caregivers would not have identified as such before the pandemic, and 6 in 10 Americans are now worrying about, looking out for, or taking care of someone because of COVID-19 External Site.
Though there are some positive aspects to caregiving, informal caregivers have a higher risk External Site for negative health outcomes like stress, depression, anxiety, and more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A recent report from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s (BCBSA) Health of AmericaSM series External Site shows that caregivers — who play an important role in the U.S. health care system — have 26 percent poorer health compared to the benchmark population, mostly due to the stress and pressure the role causes.
Whether you’re currently a caregiver or anticipate becoming one in the next few years, learn more about how caregiving can negatively impact your health — and what you can do to stay your healthiest self.
Physical health impacts of caregiving
Caregiving can be very stressful — especially if, like three out of five caregivers External Site, you juggle a full-time job on top of taking care of your loved one. Experiencing high amounts of stress can affect your physical health, causing headaches, fatigue, muscle aches and pains, and lack of sleep.
For people who are “on call” all the time caring for someone else, it’s easy to forget about their own health. They may not get enough physical activity or develop unhealthy habits, like frequently grabbing fast food or takeout because they don’t have time for home-cooked meals.
In addition to having more health problems overall, caregivers suffer from more stress-related physical and behavioral health conditions. Obesity is 50 percent more prevalent among caregivers compared to the benchmark population, and high blood pressure is 64 percent more prevalent, according to the BCBSA report. Then, there are the coping mechanisms: 14 percent of caregivers cope with alcohol, 18 percent with medication, and 50 percent with food, according to an ARCHANGELS survey cited in the BCBSA report External Site.
Mental health impacts of caregiving
The stress of caregiving doesn’t just affect your physical health. Stress can cause you to feel constantly frustrated, nervous, or overwhelmed, as well as cause excessive worrying and racing thoughts. And long-term, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Among caregivers, compared to the benchmark population, adjustment disorder is 36 percent more prevalent; anxiety is 34 percent more prevalent; and depression is 37 percent more prevalent. In millennial caregivers especially, who make up 25 percent of the caregiver population, prevalence rates for these conditions are even higher.
Caregiving also frequently causes burnout — a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to those of stress and depression, according to the Cleveland Clinic External Site. They can include losing interest in other activities, irritability, trouble concentrating, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, losing or gaining weight, getting sick more often, and withdrawing from friends, family, and other loved ones. Most caregivers don’t realize they’re experiencing burnout until they’re unable to function and provide effective care.
How to stay healthy as a caregiver
Though the odds seem to be stacked against you, there are ways to keep yourself healthy, improve your resiliency, and tackle stress and burnout.
- Don’t try to do it all. Many caregivers have a hard time asking for help, but it’s sometimes best to delegate some tasks to get them off your plate. If you need a break, take one. You may even want to look into a respite care service, which can give the caregiver time to rest and rejuvenate.
- Join a support group. Whether you meet in person or share feelings, experiences and frustrations in an online forum, communicating with others in the same situation you’re in can help you keep your stress in check and help you feel less isolated. If you can’t find a support group, ask someone you trust if you can share how you’re feeling.
- Make time for self-care. Even if you can only spare an hour or two, taking care of yourself while you’re in a caregiving role is extremely important. Go for a long walk and listen to your favorite music, meet up with a friend for coffee, or go to bed early.
- Set goals you know you can follow. Your health is important and setting goals will help you keep it a priority. For example, you can download an app to remind you to drink more water, commit to a healthier diet, or set a mid-day alarm reminding you to get up and move around.
In addition, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members have several resources to help navigate stressful situations as a caregiver:
- BeWell 24/7SM. For answers to health questions or other concerns — for yourself or for the person you’re caring for — you can call BeWell 24/7 Opens New Window. This no-cost service is available at all hours of the day and helps with finding in-network providers, coordinating care for specialists, and managing complex care situations. Just call Eight, Four, Four, Eight, Four, Be Well.
- Doctor On Demand®. If you need to see a doctor for yourself but can’t take time away from caregiving, virtual care may be the answer. Most Wellmark members have access to Doctor On Demand External Site, a virtual visit service available on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. Physicians at Doctor On Demand can treat and prescribe medication for common ailments like colds and the flu, minor aches and pains, allergies, rashes, and more. If you think you’re suffering from caregiver burnout, you can schedule a virtual mental health appointment with a board-certified psychiatrist or therapist.
- myWellmark®. Caring for someone with a complex medical condition or an aging parent who takes several medications or sees many specialists can feel overwhelming. With myWellmark, you can find in-network providers, see complete coverage details, easily understand health care claims, find cost estimates for care, and much more. To get started, go to myWellmark.com to register Opens New Window.