Pamela A. MacLean
Baby boomers who look after ailing relatives and friends face a greater risk of stress-related health problems - including heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure - than caregivers of other ages, according to a major new study of 6 million California caregivers.
Although elderly caregivers tend to provide care over longer periods, it's the middle-aged caregivers, age 45 to 65, who have the highest levels of psychological distress and other adverse health effects, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study.
Nearly 10 percent of the middle-aged caregivers report having diabetes, nearly 7 percent report heart disease and 34 percent have high blood pressure, according to the research. In addition, they are more likely to suffer from obesity, binge drinking and smoking, the report found.
The study comes as California prepares to cut back support services due to a budget crisis. Adult Day Health Care programs in the state are set for elimination and the In-Home Supportive Services has been cut, placing added burdens on caregivers. The study found the support systems are critical to help stressed caregivers.
The UCLA team found that millions of informal caregivers provide more than 20 hours a week in care. More than half of them also down fulltime jobs. They provide bathing, shopping, manage medicine or pay bills for relatives and friends who can no longer do so on their own.
The is not the first research to document the strain on family and friends who provide care. Another recent study, conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the MetLife Mature Market Institute, found caregivers are more likely to suffer heart disease, depression and other health problems. And a separate NAC report found caring for injured veterans takes a big toll on women caring for spouses, who tend to lack exercise, have poor diets, miss doctor and dentist appointments and suffer from depression and sleep deprivation.
The UCLA study found wide spread health problems for the middle-aged caregiver. More than one-quarter engaged in binge drinking. More than 30 percent were obese and nearly 16 percent smoked, the review found.
The caregiving dilemma crosses racial boundaries as well. UCLA found one-quarter of white adults and one-quarter of African-American adults are caregivers. The number is slightly less for Hispanics at 20 percent and it is 16 percent for Asians.
The relative, spouse or friend provides 21 hours a week of care on average and does so for over three years, UCLA found. And it costs them financially. Nearly one in five say they had spend more than $250 in the past month on caregiving. Other studies have shown caregivers tend to miss work as well.
Geoffrey J. Hoffman, co-author of the UCLA review concluded that some programs offer opportunities to help, but even they are threatened. The national health reform, the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) could fill the gaps in some state programs but it has been challenged in the courts. The CLASS Act would give a cash benefit to purchase support services for caregivers who need respite services, a break from their duties.
The ACA may also provide attendant support to keep people in their homes and out of nursing facilities. But even with the options the federal government should coordinate the "patchwork of programs run by the states" to give caregivers better access to support, Hoffman concluded.