Caring for the Caregiver
Taking care of someone with heart disease or dementia or who's had
a stroke offers benefits and rewards for both of you. At the same time,
it can drain your time, energy, and finances. If you don't watch out,
it can sap your health as well. Caregivers are more prone to heart
disease and depression, lower resistance against infection, and dying
In a meta-analysis of 23 studies examining health and physiological
functioning in caregivers of persons with dementia, researchers found
that caregivers had higher stress hormones, lower resistance to some
viruses, and reported poorer health than noncaregivers who were similar
in age and sex.
The studies involved 3,072 participants ages 55 to 75 over a 38-year
period. Researchers compared the physical health of caregivers demographically
matched with noncaregivers on various health categories, including self-reported
health, chronic illnesses, physical symptoms, medication use, health
service use, antibodies, stress hormones, and cardiovascular function.
The caregivers had a 23% higher level of stress hormones and a 15% lower
level of antibody responses than noncaregivers.
Elevated stress hormones can lead to high blood pressure and glucose
levels which can increase the risk for hypertension and diabetes. Also,
diminished antibody production in older people may increase their risk
for influenza - even if they receive flu shots.
Female caregivers reported more health problems but they did not exhibit
higher hormone, cardiovascular, or metabolic disease risk than male caregivers.
This could be because women are more likely to report health problems
Whether you are taking care of someone with dementia, recovering from
a heart attack, or crippled by congestive heart failure or a stroke,
getting organized, making connections with people who can assist you,
and taking a break now and then can help you take care of your loved
one and yourself.
If the person you care for hasn't signed a health care proxy, put this
high on your to-do list. This document lets an individual appoint someone
to decide about treatment if he or she loses the ability to make medical
decisions. Make sure that his or her doctors and the hospital have a
The term "caregiver" conjures up images of a gentle soul who fluffs
pillows, soothes the fevered brow, and ladles out steamy bowls of rich
chicken soup. The reality is far less romantic. It involves mundane jobs
such as arranging doctors' visits, keeping track of medications, preparing
special meals, or helping your loved one get dressed or go to the bathroom.
You may also need to learn how to measure blood pressure, give injections,
and operate complicated medical devices.
Such responsibilities can be bewildering, even overwhelming, especially
when they are compounded by fears that your loved one will die or worries
about how to pay for everything. You can find helpful tips for caring for
your loved one and yourself in the print copy of the Harvard Medical
School Family Health Guide .
March 2004 Update
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