THE BLOG
08/01/2014 12:14 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2014

Today's Hidden Health Hazard: Caregiving

Jess finished cleaning the patient's feeding tube. Then she recorded his blood pressure on his chart, checked his blood glucose, and measured out his medication. Seeing his discomfort she assessed his breakthrough pain level at seven and gave him a rescue shot of pain medication. That done, she settled down to work at her computer.

Jody is not a physician or a nurse. She has no formal medical training. She's one of the unsung heroes of today's health care system -- a caregiver. The patient is her elderly father who has multiple medical conditions and depends on his daughter's care.

Jody is a statistic, and the overall statistics are shocking.

Emblem Health reports that there are nearly 66 million caregivers in the U.S. -- nearly one in every three people. There are multiple reasons for this epidemic of caregiving. Baby boomers are aging. Life expectancies are longer. Hospital stays are shorter ("Americans are being released from hospitals quicker and sicker," says PBS.) And some 5.5 million Americans are caring for wounded veterans.

The burden of caring lands squarely on family members, who find themselves performing tasks that used to be reserved for people with medical degrees.

A study by Margaret F. Bevins, RN, and Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., in the Journal of the American Medical Association, notes that, "Unlike professional caregivers such as physicians and nurses, informal caregivers, typically family members or friends, provide care to individuals with a variety of conditions, including advanced age, dementia, and cancer. This experience is commonly perceived as a chronic stressor, and caregivers often experience negative effects on their daily lives and health."

The problem is compounded by the fact that not only do caregivers take care of others, but they also have jobs to go to, children to attend to, households to run, and bills to be paid. They worry about how they're going to handle it all.

In other words, caregiving itself can turn out to be a health hazard. Emblem Health refers to the caregiver as "the forgotten or silent patient."

I think of it as the Caregiver Syndrome, characterized by lack of sleep, burdensome responsibilities, worries about money, and deep concern for the patient, who is also a loved one.
Even medical professionals such as doctors, nurses and others who work in hospitals,can get worn down from day in, day out caring for the seriously ill. But they havean advantage. The professional chaplains who work with them are trained to be aware of, and to care for, the spiritual needs of the staff.

What's needed is to alert caregivers about the risks to their own health and to give them advice about caring for themselves.

A number of forward-thinking groups have started to come to the rescue. The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has tips on their website on avoiding caregiver burnout... such things as making time for yourself, joining caregiver support groups, and pursuing exercise and hobbies.

AARP has a wealth of helpful information on the Caregiving Resource Center of their website.

It's imperative that other organizations, including the government, step up to the plate to help prevent our caregivers from swelling the ranks of patients.