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Expert Answers to Common Caregiving Questions

According to the Caregiver Action Network, there are approximately 90 million family caregivers in the U.S. today, and two out of every five adults care for a family member.

The following questions and answers with Steven Zarit, PhD, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University and caregiving expert, provide insight into common caregiving questions.

What are some of the most significant psychological challenges for someone who has assumed the role of caregiver for a parent or other relative?

Zarit: The psychological challenges depend in part on the extent of care. Caregiving can range from providing occasional and minimal care to giving ongoing, extensive and sometimes full-time care. These challenges also depend on the relationship between caregiver and care recipient-it is different for a spouse than for an adult child, for example, to provide care-and the quality of the relationship. In intense care, high-stress situations, the challenges are considerable. Caregiving can take up most, if not all, of the caretaker’s time. It can feel like you are always on call and needing to be vigilant. It can also feel like you are engulfed-your life has become just caring, and you cannot do the other things that have been important and rewarding. Another major challenge is coordinating care with doctors and other care providers. Our systems for supporting caregivers are complicated, confusing, and underfunded, and caregivers often feel frustrated and alone in trying to navigate through various services.

The other major psychological challenge is that care takes place in the context of a relationship that has a long, complex history. It is helpful in managing difficult care situations to have some emotional distance from the care receiver, so as to plan out appropriate care strategies. But this can be difficult for many caregivers because of the long history, both good and bad, of the relationship. Caregivers may feel criticized and not appreciated by a parent or spouse they are caring for, or by siblings and other relatives.

What does psychological research say about the effect-good or bad-that long-term caregiving can have on an individual?

Zarit: Research has shown that intense caregiving situations can be harmful to a caregiver’s health and well-being. Caregivers in these situations have higher rates of depressive symptoms, anger, lower positive emotions, greater health problems, and higher mortality than age- and gender-matched individuals.

However, many caregivers also gain a sense of satisfaction from providing care. They feel they are doing the right thing for a parent or spouse, and this can help them deal with the frustrations they experience.

How can a person determine if he or she would make a good caregiver for a family member?

Zarit: Within families, it is often the person who is good at providing care, and may already do so in other roles. But, all caregivers probably need to learn strategies that will help them be effective-patience, listening to the care receiver, gaining some emotional distance, managing time so that they can get regular breaks, calling on others for help, including family members and paid help. In other words, not trying to do everything alone-this is a common pitfall for many caregivers.

For more information and resources for caregivers, visit the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) website at http://www.apa.org.

This story was adapted from material provided by the APA.

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