Bobbie Orsi, a 61-year-old nurse and director of community relations at Home Instead in Pittsfield, Mass., is responsible for her husband with Alzheimer’s disease, her 84-year-old mother and her aunt living in a skilled nursing facility.
Orsi is often juggling her needs with theirs: always having her husband’s pill box full, but sometimes forgetting to fill her own prescriptions; sharing their finances for his care; running errands for her mom; and acting as durable power of attorney for her aunt. Her husband is physically able to take care of himself, as is her mother with her household chores, but she’s the one making the doctor appointments and seeing to other caretaking arrangements.
“Tired is the way I live these days,” Orsi said. “It takes its toll on you if you don’t take care of yourself.”
Orsi is not alone in taking care of her loved ones, nor is she alone in being exhausted from the task — and she works alongside many other caregivers who also make sacrifices.
Boomer women are at the highest risk of having their lives turned upside down when caring for a loved one. One in four of these women said they took on the role, according to a recent Fidelity Investments and Stanford Center on Longevity survey of 9,000 employees, and 78% said they were more stressed than before, compared to 66% of men.
Stress affected not only their health, but their finances: Half of women slept worse than before, 43% gained weight since becoming a caregiver and 42% stopped exercising. More than a third (37%) said they began saving less after taking on the role of caregiver. “Women are more likely to be bearing the brunt of caregiving,” said Katie Taylor, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity.
More than 43 million adults in the country provided unpaid care to an adult or child between 2014 and 2015, according to a 2015 National Alliance for Caregiving and senior advocacy group AARP report, and 60% of those caregivers were women. On average, they were acting as caregiver for four years, and 24% reported having the role for five or more years. In total, caregivers provide more than 37 billion hours of unpaid care per year, according to nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance.
The effects on the caregiver can be significant, as the Fidelity and Stanford report showed — and the longer the person is acting as caregiver, or the more hours they do so per week, the more likely they report having fair or poor health or more stress.
More than half of the NAC’s survey respondents said they had high levels of emotional stress if they felt they had no choice but to become a caregiver, and people felt more stress taking care of a spouse or parent than they did another relative or friend. About one in five caregivers said they felt a financial strain, such as the four in 10 long-distance caregivers who required paid help. Some had to make changes to their work, such as cutting their hours, taking a leave of absence or receiving a warning about their performance or attendance. Caregivers of older adults are forced to take an average of 6.6 days off from work per year, according to a 2012 AARP report.
See also: 6 resources for family caregivers
Having professional help can ease some of those issues, said Jisella Dolan, chief advocacy officer for Home Instead, which is an in-home caregiving network with more than 1,100 agencies globally, as can finding a community to talk to. “It can be very isolating to be a caregiver,” she said. Sometimes, “it feels like you’re the only one navigating this.”
One of the most important things a caregiver can do for him or herself is to reach out for support from other family, friends or groups going through similar situations. They should have money and health talks with their loved ones, consider they may be a caregiver in their own retirement (and plan accordingly) and write up important legal documents.
They also shouldn’t forget about themselves, Orsi said — that means making arrangements so you can take a few days off, finding time to see others and immersing yourself in a hobby you enjoy. Orsi took up electric drums, which helps fill up silent moments and get through bad days, and she knows others who have tried yoga or Tai Chi.
“Caregivers have to believe this is not how their entire life goes, that the future is open,” she said.