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The Heavy Toll on Unpaid Caregivers

More than 6 million Americans are taking care of loved ones who are elderly, ill or have disabilities. A new report confirms many ignore their own health issues. (Virginia Carter)
More than 6 million Americans are taking care of loved ones who are elderly, ill or have disabilities. A new report confirms many ignore their own health issues. (Virginia Carter)
February 23, 2016

BALTIMORE - A study thought to be one of the first national surveys to assess the well-being of unpaid family caregivers has found they are about twice as likely to experience physical, financial and emotional difficulties as those who aren't responsible for someone else.

Jennifer Wolff, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says those who are focused on others are more likely to ignore their own issues.

She says the research highlights the need for support for these caregivers.

"If the electronic health record had a structured field to record the name of the family member so that health professionals knew who else was helping a patient they could be better integrated as part of a care team," says Wolff. "Providing them with more information about the patients care plan about the medications they're taking."

Wolff says medication mistakes are common because the caregiver isn't informed about what it's prescribed for, or about correct dosage amounts. She says caregivers are usually not trained in medical issues and don't know where to go for help.

"Maryland has a statewide network called Maryland Access Point, that's a point of entry for services for family caregivers," she says. "There are a lot of different programs offered through advocacy organizations like the Alzheimer's Association, which has amazing services."

Wolff says a few states have family-leave programs that allow people to collect part of their salary while caring for relatives with medical issues, but she says there needs to be more of them.

Wolff says family members and friends who become caregivers for loved ones who are ill or have disabilities might go without psychological support, or don't get health care for themselves.

She says unpaid caregivers are often suffering financially, as well, and that needs to be recognized.

"If families were to walk away there's no way the system could afford to step in and provide all the assistance that they are doing uncompensated," says Wolff.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MD