Harvard Health Letter

Caregivers: Heavier load may take a bigger toll on health

caregiving caregiver heavier load
Image: Attila Barabas/Thinkstock

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Caring for an elderly family member with disability, dementia, or both is a tough job. And those with the heaviest responsibilities suffer the most consequences, finds a study published Feb. 15, 2016, in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers looked at information from two large national surveys of older adults and their family caregivers. They noted that about 15 million family caregivers are assisting almost eight million adults 65 or older, and 44% of caregivers are providing substantial care—about 28 hours per week—by helping with medication management, doctor visits, and transportation. Researchers found that people providing substantial care are more likely to live with the person they care for and are more likely to experience significant emotional, physical, and financial difficulty compared with caregivers who don't provide substantial help. Researchers also said people providing substantial care are more than five times as likely to miss out on activities they value and three times as likely to be less productive at work, compared with those who don't have such a heavy caregiving load.

"It is important that family caregivers take time to care for themselves to avoid burnout, depression, and medical illness. Talk with a primary care provider or social worker about options for increasing assistance through programs utilizing home health agencies or even respite care," recommends Dr. Sarah Berry, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.