It’s no secret: Being a caregiver for an elderly or disabled loved one can be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging.

“Sometimes caregivers spend so much time and energy caring for other people that they neglect their own activities, health, and emotional well-being,” says Richard Morycz, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, medicine, and social work at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Caregiving by the Numbers

In the United States alone, there are more than 45 million unpaid family caregivers. “Twenty percent of all households in this country include people who are providing care,” says Dr. Morycz. Most caregivers (60 percent) are women, although the number of male caregivers has increased in recent years.

The average caregiver — whose age is in the mid-60s — dedicates 20 hours per week to providing home care for a relative. Many (60 percent of male caregivers and 41 percent of female caregivers) also work full-time jobs outside the home, making them even more susceptible to stress-related issues.

The Toll of Constant Caregiving

When you’re a full-time caregiver, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when you’re caring for a loved one on top of the daily pressures of work, family, home, and finances. “The caregiver is at increased risk of developing their own physical and emotional problems,” said Morycz. “In turn, that threatens their ability to provide ongoing care to the people they love.”

The most typical issues caregivers experience are mental and physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and feelings of isolation and sadness.

Care for the Caregiver

As a caregiver, one of the most important things you can do is find a sympathetic confidante who will offer support and encouragement. “The best way of getting help and caring for yourself is face-to-face interaction with someone other than the person you are caring for,” says Dr. Morycz.

Other important self-care tips for caregivers include:

  • Make time for yourself and take routine breaks without feeling guilty. Even something as simple as taking 30 minutes of alone time to read or take a walk can help. You’ll be a much better caregiver if you’re not on duty 24/7.
  • Exercise to relieve stress. Whether it’s a long walk, an hour of yoga, or a bike ride in the country, do something you enjoy. Regular exercise is a good habit for caregivers to develop.
  • Eat as healthfully as you can.
  • Make sleep a priority.
  • Use relaxation techniques. For many people, taking care of the caregiver involves some form of quiet self-care. Simple practices, such as mindfulness, prayer, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve stress. Whatever you choose to do, make it part of your daily routine.

Find Caregiver Resources

High on any list of caregiver tips is developing a good support system. Find local or online support groups; nothing beats exchanging ideas and experiences with people who are in a similar situation. Local churches, synagogues, and mosques often host groups and may already have support services in place.

Every county also has an Area Agency on Aging that provides a variety of services, such as companion services, home health aides, and housekeeping services. Call 412-350-5460 or 800-344-4319 and ask about caregiver support programs. Allegheny County also has a program called the Caregivers First Initiative, a free service to help caregivers manage stress.

UPMC Aging Institute, another resource center for caregivers, provides information on geriatric specialty care, care options in the home, ways to help yourself, and ways to cope with grief and loss. For information on caregiving or resources to support caregivers, call UPMC Aging Institute’s Help and Referral Line at 1-866-430-8742.

If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.

About Aging Institute

The UPMC Aging Institute provides resources for older adults, their loved ones, and caregivers at every stage of the aging process. We create inventive programs and health care services. Our team includes world-renowned researchers, doctors, and experts. We research the aging process and use what we learn to create services to help seniors live longer and healthier lives. We partner with other organizations to determine the biggest challenges facing seniors and work to overcome them.