Caregivers often neglect their own health while helping others, study finds

Photo (c) Cecilie_Arcurs - Getty Images

Lack of access to health services can make it harder for caregivers to get the help they need

There are many people out there who spend plenty of time and energy taking care of other people. Whether it’s a sick loved one or an older family member, providing care can feel like a full-time job. Unfortunately, findings from a recent study show that many caregivers often sacrifice their own well-being in order to maintain these selfless acts.

Researchers from Seattle Pacific University analyzed non-professional caregivers and found that many of them either can’t afford health insurance or put off needed health services to maintain their ability to help friends or family. The team says that continuing to do this can lead to negative health outcomes.

"Caregivers provide tremendous benefits for their loved ones, yet they may be at risk for lacking access to needed services which puts their health in jeopardy," said study co-author Dr. Jacob Bentley. "We found that caregivers were more likely not to have health care coverage or forgo needed medical appointments and services. They were also at an increased risk for experiencing depression in their lifetime as compared with non-caregivers."

Higher risk of depression and health issues

The researchers came upon these findings after analyzing data on over 24,000 people who replied to a national phone survey. Caregivers who responded said that they provided regular assistance to a friend or family member, ranging from helping with day-to-day household tasks to managing finances.

Other questions focused on participants’ access to health insurance and whether they had chosen to cancel or put off doctor’s appointments or other services because they couldn’t afford it. The results were eye-opening, to say the least.

"Caregivers had a 26% higher risk of not having health care coverage, compared with non-caregivers, and they were at a significantly higher risk, a 59% additional risk, for not going to the doctor or getting a necessary health service due to cost, " said Bentley. "Also, nearly 30% reported experiencing at least one limitation to daily activities because of physical, mental or emotional problems."

More accessible services are needed

The researchers said they were dismayed to learn how many non-professional caregivers were negatively impacted by their inability to access necessary health services. While some of these people may have been able to work while providing care, life can be more difficult for those who have to forgo an employment opportunity to stay available to help loved ones. The health implications by themself were enough to make Bentley and his colleagues take pause.

"While we expected caregivers to be more at risk in these areas, we were concerned to learn of the extent of these risks and barriers to health care access encountered by caregivers," he said. 

"Given the scope of difficulties acquiring health care coverage and utilizing needed services in this large national sample, we believe our findings warrant additional research and likely the development of low-cost and accessible services that meet the multifaceted needs of caregivers."

The full study has been published in the journal Rehabilitation Psychology.

Find a Medical Alert System partner near you.