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Historically, women have served as caregivers for those who need help with the activities of daily living, like cooking, cleaning and bathing. As more people live longer, the need for caregivers is growing, putting financial and mental strain on female caregivers.
Because of their responsibilities of caring for others, many caregivers suffer from mental health issues and put off looking after their own health.
As caregivers, women need to make sure their needs are met first.
For generations, women have been the face of caregiving. Call it the result of gender bias, traditional social norms or cultural constructs, but, historically, women have filled the majority of caregiver roles. In fact, two out of every three caregivers in America today are women, and the average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works at least part time and has been caring for an aging parent for several years.
America’s population is also aging, with people living longer than ever before. By 2040, about one in five Americans will be age 65 or older, up from roughly one in eight in 2000, and the number of adults ages 85 and older — the age group that most commonly needs caregiving help — is expected to nearly quadruple.
Along with the financial burdens an older society can cause, it can also lead to increased stressors on caregivers — female caregivers, in particular.
What does it mean to be a caregiver?
As Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States, once said before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, “There are only four kinds of people in the world — those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”
A caregiver can mean different things to different people. At its most basic definition, a caregiver is a family member or paid employee who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly or disabled adult.
Caregivers commonly help with activities like grocery shopping, driving to and from doctor’s appointments, performing housework and cooking meals, and assisting with bathing and dressing.
In the United States, the number of unpaid family caregivers — caregivers who help a member of their family — is on the rise, increasing from 43.5 million in 2015 to more than 53 million in 2020. The majority of these unpaid family caregivers, more than 41.8 million, care for people over the age of 50.
These unpaid family caregivers also spend an average of 4.5 years caring for a loved one — most often an older adult — and more than 75% of them are women.
What is the role of women in caregiving?
Women who provide unpaid caregiving spend, on average, nearly the same amount of time each week taking care of someone as they would at a full-time job. Plus, they’re often also employed or raising children of their own.
In general, women are also living longer than men, having fewer children and having the children they do have later in life. These trends in birth rates have prompted concerns about the ability of America’s labor force to support an aging population.
The U.S. health care system relies heavily on this unpaid care to support people who need help taking care of themselves. The financial impact of caregiving? The value women provide as unpaid, informal caregivers ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion each year.
But women caregivers have needs of their own — needs they often set aside as they care for others. Many retire early, decrease their work hours or pass up a job promotion because of their caregiving responsibilities, which impacts their quality of life. They also experience higher levels of depression, stress, anxiety and other mental health issues compared to non-caregivers.
In addition, studies have found that women who are caregivers get preventive tests like mammograms less often than non-caregivers.
The importance of maintaining self-care
All caregivers, but women especially, need strong social support to stay physically and mentally healthy and to continue to serve in their role as caregivers. Research has found that counseling and caregiver support groups, in combination with rest and other personal care services, can have positive effects on a caregiver’s health — and their caregiving experience.
Tips for taking care of yourself
Prioritizing your own health and wellness is one of the most important things you can do as a caregiver. To provide the best care to others, it’s critical to take care of your own needs first.
Here are some tips for balancing caregiving duties with your well-being as a woman:
- Set time aside to exercise each day, even if it’s only for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and rest — and eating healthfully.
- Seek counseling when you need it, join a support group or take the time to talk to a trusted friend.
- Let go of guilt and take time off when you need it.
- Accept help and support from others.
- Keep up with your health care needs, such as scheduling preventive tests and appointments as needed, and managing health conditions.
- Do things that bring you joy, like taking a walk or reading a book.
- Practice meditation, prayer or yoga.
Resources for caregivers
Here are a few resources you can use to help navigate caregiving:
Caregiving isn’t easy, but it can be very rewarding. Just remember that taking time for yourself isn’t only helpful, it’s necessary.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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