Caregiving is a tough job. Even when we are not in the midst of a global pandemic, caregiving is difficult and stressful. There are approximately 53 million unpaid caregivers in the United States and many more people who earn a living providing care to others.1 It is not uncommon for these caregivers to feel under-supported in a role that can be both isolating and fatiguing. Caregiver burnout is real problem both for caregivers and for the people who rely on those caregivers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, caregiving has become even more challenging as caregivers deal with the natural stress of caregiving and of maintaining the health and well being of themselves and those around them.
Caregiving During COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life for many. Children are learning from home, people have lost their jobs, and many families are struggling to pay their bills and purchase food. Caregivers, their families, and the seniors they care are for are feeling anxious and worried by the devastation the pandemic has wrought in many communities. Both seniors and their caregivers are frightened of getting sick and of making their loved ones ill.
Since the pandemic began, it has been difficult for caregivers to provide adequate support to the seniors they care for while also looking after the caregivers’ own physical and mental health. Caregivers have reported feeling fearful and anxious during this past year. Many of these caregivers have reported feeling like they need a break. While we do not have hard data about the number of caregivers who feel this way, caregiver burnout is a problem that predates COVID-19. The pandemic has exacerbated the stresses that many caregivers face, increasing the risk of burnout. This can lead to a decline in mental health among caregivers, with caregivers suffering from increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Even in the best of times, caregiving can impact a caregiver’s emotional well-being, finances, and social life because caregiving is a demanding job. Many caregivers are unprepared for the important role they play in the lives of the people for whom they care. This can make caregivers feel increasingly burdened and can make caregivers feel depressed and have other health problems.2
When caregivers experience a decline in mental health and feel overworked, this puts additional strain on the caregiver’s ability to take care of another person. Caregivers who feel depressed or burned out can feel less confident about their ability to accomplish their caregiving tasks and cope with the difficulties of caregiving.3 One study done in 2020 found that almost forty percent of caregivers reported a desire to have access to respite care, while only twelve percent of caregivers actually had access to respite care. Respite care is short term care that can provide temporary relief to a primary caregiver.
Approximately half of caregivers surveyed said they had no paid family leave and sixty-one percent of America’s unpaid caregivers have a job beyond their role as caregiver. This makes it difficult for caregivers to take time off work to provide care. In addition, sixty-one percent of unpaid caregivers in the United States are women. Many of these women may also have children, putting added pressure on these women to manage their caregiver duties. With many children learning at home due to COVID-19, women’s childcare duties have only increased. When we look at this data, it’s no wonder that many caregivers feel burned out. We can understand why approximately twenty-three percent of caregivers report that caregiving has had a negative impact on their own health.4
Caregivers may also face financial burdens. One study found that almost half of caregivers reported experiencing financial strain. This can be due in part to the fact that many informal caregivers, such as family members, may neglect their careers in order to care for their relative. Caregiving can have a negative impact on a person’s career because caregiving is demanding and time consuming.5 During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have experienced increased financial strain, putting added pressure on caregivers to make ends meet.
Many of the strategies that caregivers may use to cope with the stress of their roles have been limited during COVID-19. Options for in-person mental health treatment or other support have become less available. One strategy known to reduce stress, exercise, has become challenging for some as gyms have closed and people have been stuck at home. This lack of options for dealing with stress makes it even harder for caregivers to find a healthy outlet for their feelings.6
Caregiver Stress and Elder Abuse
Caregiver burnout, stress, and depression are a problem for a number of reasons. One, they may hinder a caregiver’s ability to perform their caregiving duties. Second, for caregivers who struggle with substance use disorder, the challenges of caregiving during COVID-19 may lead some caregivers turn to substance use to cope. Studies have shown that persons who struggle with substance use are more likely to commit elder abuse, compounding the problem.7
Caregivers who have financial troubles are also more likely to commit elder abuse, particularly financial elder abuse. Financial strain and financial co-dependency are known risk factors for elder abuse by caregivers.8 Going beyond financial strain, the competing demands being put on Americans make it difficult to balance one’s time. This can lead to inadvertent neglect of seniors, as their caregivers are now even busier than they were before the pandemic.
Resources for Caregivers
The upside of being stuck at home is that many healthcare providers are now offering remote visits. This may make it easier for caregivers to seek treatment for their own healthcare needs. Another option for caregivers feeling stressed and burned out is to join a support group for caregivers. The Well Spouse Association coordinates support groups for spousal caregivers. For those caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association has a locator for support groups in your area. AARP has an online forum for caregivers and runs a Facebook group for caregivers. Lastly, the Family Caregiver Alliance runs an online support group.9 Caregivers are not alone and these groups can help caregivers feel support and share advice with one another.
To learn more about how to cope with caregiver burnout, click here.
1 Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, https://www.caregiving.org/caregiving-in-the-us-2020/.
2 AARP, “Caregiver Burnout: Steps for Coping With Stress” https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/life-balance/info-2019/caregiver-stress-burnout.html?CMP=KNC-DSO-Adobe-Google-Caregiving-SelfCare-NonBrand-Exact-CaregiverBurnout-COVID&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuvrNkuqr7wIVpCGtBh0QtwH_EAAYASAAEgJc7fD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds.
3 Journal of Applied Gerontology, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0733464820971511?icid=int.sj-full-text.samecollection-articles.3&.
4 Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, https://www.caregiving.org/caregiving-in-the-us-2020/.
5 Aging Research, https://www.agingresearch.org/blog-caring-for-caregivers-during-covid-19/.
6 “Elder Abuse in the Time of COVID-19 – Increased Risks for Older Adults and Their Caregivers” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7234937/.
7 “Elder Abuse in the Time of COVID-19 – Increased Risks for Older Adults and Their Caregivers” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7234937/.
8 “Elder Abuse in the Time of COVID-19 – Increased Risks for Older Adults and Their Caregivers” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7234937/.
9 AARP, “Warning Signs of Caregiver Burnout” https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/life-balance/info-2019/caregiver-stress-burnout.html?CMP=KNC-DSO-Adobe-Google-Caregiving-SelfCare-NonBrand-Exact-CaregiverBurnout-COVID&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuvrNkuqr7wIVpCGtBh0QtwH_EAAYASAAEgJc7fD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds.