Taking Care of the Caregiver

Chronic disease changes lives and not just for the patient. Sometimes, caregivers of patients with physically debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), fibromyalgia, and arthritis let their dedication stand in the way of taking care of themselves. 

According to the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA), more than 65 million Americans spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year. That's on top of full time jobs and family obligations. Caregiving is stressful, and can negatively impact the caregiver's health and wellbeing. In fact, the NFCA says:

  • 23 percent of family caregivers caring for loved ones for 5 years or more report their health as fair or poor.
  • 72 percent report not going to the doctor as often as they should.
  • 55 percent say they skip doctor appointments for themselves.
  • 63 percent of caregivers report having poor eating habits.
  • 58 percent indicate worse exercise habits than before care giving responsibilities.
  • 40 to 70 percent have clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately one-quarter to one-half of these caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

How can you avoid becoming one of these statistics? All caregivers should follow these ten tips:

1. Consider caregiving a job and give yourself regular breaks.

2. Ask for and accept help from friends, family members, neighbors, and health providers.

3. Keep an eye on your own mental health. If you notice signs of depression, see your doctor.

4. Learn about your family member's disease so you can access all possible resources and communicate clearly with doctors and healthcare providers.

5. Encourage independence. Despite their illness, there will be things they can and should do for themselves. 

6. Take care of your own health. Get regular checkups, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and practice stress-reduction techniques like meditation.

7. Watch your back. Caregivers who do a lot of lifting, pushing, and pulling are at risk for back, neck, and shoulder injuries. Learn and practice proper body mechanics.

8.  Investigate and use any tools, technologies, or procedures that can make your job easier. Many are covered by insurance.

9. Get support. Talk with other caregivers, visit your friends, see a therapist, and ask your family to provide respite care. 

10. Know when to say when. There may come a time when you can no longer safely provide good quality care for your loved one. Ask your doctor about next steps and go easy on yourself for having done all you could.

If your loved one has MS:

  • Find out about mobility and self-care equipment to help you and your loved one manage activities of daily living more easily.
  • Learn about health, diet, and exercise guidelines that may slow MS disease progression and practice them on yourself.
  • Depression and grief are common for both MS patients and their caregivers. Get professional support to maintain your own sense of well-being.

If your loved one has arthritis:

  • Anger and depression are common for patients with arthritis or chronic pain. Don't take it personally and get support.
  • Encourage your loved one to exercise, take their medication, and follow all recommended therapies.

If your loved one has fibromyalgia:

There's still a lot of social stigma surrounding fibromyalgia and some of it can fall on caregivers. 

  • Learn all you can about the disease and therapies that relieve symptoms.
  • Educate others about how the disease impacts you and your loved one.
  • Encourage your loved one to stay active and connected to their friends and family.