Don't Forget Caregivers during Holidays

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Oppermann

As the world gets caught up in myriad holiday preparations, family caregivers get lost in the stresses of the season - largely unrecognized, unnoticed or forgotten. This year, as the holiday marathon begins, take time to add these unsung heroes to your gift list.

You won't have to look far. Aunt Rose - gee, when did Uncle Billy have his stroke? Your brother, who happens to live closest to your parents and is willing and, thankfully, able to help them get to all those doctor's appointments. The older woman - what's her name, again? -seen walking with her fragile husband in your neighborhood.

"Family caregivers are the bedrock of our health system," noted Deborah Halpern, spokeswoman for the National Family Caregivers Association. "It's estimated that more than 50 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or a friend during any given year."

If you added up the value of all the "free" services family caregivers provide in the United States, it would be $306 billion a year, almost twice as much as is actually spent on home care and nursing home services, according to Peter S. Arno, head of the department of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

In Illinois alone, 2.2 million family caregivers provide care worth more than $13.1 million dollars a year, reported the National Family Caregivers Association and the Family Caregiver Alliance. Illinois ranks sixth in the U.S. in the number of caregivers providing help to family members.

But these services come at a steep cost to caregivers. Spouses who provide 36 or more hours of weekly care are six times more likely to experience depression or anxiety; for those caring for a parent, the rate is twice as high, reported a study in a 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. A husband's chances of dying within a month of his wife's hospitalization was increased by 35 percent; a wife's mortality risk rose by 44 percent, revealed a study reported in the Feb. 16, 2006, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely - losing as much as 10 years off their lives, according to Peter S. Arno at a forum presented with the Department of Veterans Affairs last January. …