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Over 50 million caregivers in the United States provide the equivalent of $470 billion dollars in unpaid assistance (AARP Public Policy Institute, 2020). Many people do things for family and/or friends; what makes someone a caregiver? People become a caregiver or care partner when they regularly help someone in ways that are different from what is typical in that type of relationship. Examples include shopping and/or cooking for someone who can no longer do this on their own, routinely taking this person to their medical appointments, or helping them remember what they need to do in daily life. Sometimes people become a caregiver when another person is diagnosed with a medical illness, including a mental health disorder. Others become a caregiver gradually as problems get worse over time, or when someone else with primary responsibilities is no longer able to continue. Individuals can become a caregiver at any point in their adult life and may be a caregiver of a spouse or romantic partner, a parent or grandparent, a disabled adult child, a grandchild, or another “chosen” family member. “Chosen family” are individuals who, although not tied by blood or marriage, are in very close interconnected relationships.
Benefits and Costs of Providing Care
Caregiving has benefits. Research has shown that, despite popular belief, most caregivers live longer than individuals who are not involved in providing care to another person. Supporting another person can bring a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life. Those receiving care may continue to do some things for the care partner and for themselves. People commonly develop new skills in their caregiving role that continue to be useful in other life situations. It is also the case that caregiving responsibilities and tasks can overwhelm emotional, physical, and financial resources and be extremely stressful. Caregiving costs and benefits can vary depending upon other aspects of identity and cultural diversity (e.g., ethnic and racial background, LGBT+, rural versus urban residence) and the type of caregiving. Caring for someone with serious mental illness or cognitive disabilities due to brain injury or a disease, such as Alzheimer’s, is especially stressful. Some caregivers experience depression and anxiety; many individuals neglect important aspects of their own physical and mental health.
Supports for Caregivers
No one should attempt to be a caregiver without getting support for themselves. To remain able to provide care, all caregivers need help. Information, access to community resources, practical assistance with daily life tasks, time away from caregiving (called “respite”), and emotional support can all be critically important. Learning new coping strategies and some useful communication skills can reduce stress and burden. Some caregivers meet with a therapist for time-limited psychotherapy to develop and apply healthy coping and communication skills. Others attend caregiving programs in the community that provide education, support, and opportunities to develop and practice new skills.
CBT can help caregivers to:
- Pay attention to, and give themselves credit for, what is going well
- Identify and arrange for additional resources and supports
- Use healthy coping skills during particularly stressful times
- Engage in positive activities for themselves and with the person receiving care
- Develop effective ways to communicate with others (e.g., family, medical providers)
National Resources in the U.S.
National Institute on Aging (1-800-222-2225)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI; 1-703-524-7600)
National Center on Caregiving (1-800-445-8107)
AARP Caregiving Support (1-888-687-2277)
Alzheimer’s Association (1-800-272-3900; 24/7 helpline)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Caregiver Support (1-855-260-3274)