February 25th, 2011 at 3:06 am
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When A Loved One Isn’t So

by Sue Lanza

A few years ago, I was corresponding with a dementia specialist in the United Kingdom about an article I was writing for the Journal of Dementia Care (by the way, it is a terrific journal with practical ideas). We each thought the other had funny ways of saying things but over time, she helped me edit my article for the British audience I was addressing.

Much of the time, our conversations centered on the whole caregiving experience; especially focuses on persons caring for those with dementia. During one of our conversations, the specialist stopped me and said, “why do you keep using the term ‘loved one’ to describe those who are being cared for when it may not be that way at all”? I had never given this topic much thought prior to this comment but now I couldn’t stop thinking about how right she really was with her question.

Family or informal caregivers often don’t get “hired” into their jobs. Instead circumstances, obligations and guilt may be the deciding factor for becoming the caregiver of a spouse, relative or friend. This doesn’t discount all the caregiving that goes on where there is love between the caregiver and the the person being cared for. Often we see the opposite and wonder like the song, what does love got to do with it?

It’s hard to get exact statistics on this situation but if a family dynamic has existed for years in a crisis mode (i.e.- domestic violence), adding the caregiving dimension will not change things, only make them worse. Think about toxic relationships where the demands of caregiving make the proposition almost unbearable: daughters who are caring for mothers that they have been estranged from for years, abusive spouses who have to rely on each other for care and distant family members who are suddenly thrust into caregiver mode.

Here are some of the scary statistics about caregiving in general so picture the dynamics with a toxic relationship between the caregiver and the person cared for:

  • 23% of family caregivers caring for loved ones for 5 years or more report their health is fair or poor.
Caregiving in the United States;
National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP; November 2009
  • Stress of family caregiving for persons with dementia has been shown to impact a person’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness themselves.

Drs. Janice-Kiecolt Glaser and Ronald Glaser, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 30, 2003.

  • 20% of employed female caregivers over 50 years old report symptoms of depression compared to 8% of their non-caregiving peers.
MetLife Study of Working Caregivers and Employer Health Costs;
National Alliance for Caregiving and MetLife Mature Market Institute. February 2010
  • 40% to 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately a quarter to half of these caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

Zarit, S. (2006). Assessment of Family Caregivers: A Research Perspective

  • Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life.
Elissa S. Epel, Dept of Psychiatry, Univ of Calif, SF, et al,
From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dec 7, 2004, Vol 101, No. 49.

I’m working on being more aware of the fact that many of us come to the caregiving journey not by way of love. So instead of automatically saying “loved one” to refer to a person being cared for, why not try “person cared for”. What phrase do you use?

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