Madhouse MuseSteven Hirsch and his wife, Jacqui, who is disabled by secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, spend the morning with their dogs, Abby and Jake, at a dog park in Irvine.
More than 6 million California adults provide care for a family member or friend with a long-term illness or disability. These informal caregivers manage bills and medications, clean and cook, and help their loved ones with tasks they can no longer do themselves – often at the expense of their own health, well-being and financial stability.
California's caregivers have higher levels of psychological distress and engage in more poor health-related behaviors than do their non-caregiving counterparts, according to a study released last week by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Nearly 52 percent work full time in addition to providing an average of more than 21 hours of care each week. Few are compensated for their care; one in five spends more than $250 of their own money on caregiving each month.
Just over 42 percent of caregivers are ages 45 to 64. They often are among the "sandwich generation" – people struggling to meet the needs of their growing children and aging parents. Analyzing data from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey, researchers found many middle-aged caregivers had health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Compared with their non-caregiving counterparts, they were 25 percent more likely to binge drink, 16 percent more likely to smoke and 30 percent more likely to be obese.
Become a source
Help us do more.
"Middle-aged caregivers were essentially setting themselves up to be the next generation of care recipients," said Geoffrey Hoffman, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at UCLA's School of Public Health. "They care for others but, unfortunately, don't care for themselves."
California Watch reached out to caregivers in the state using the Public Insight Network, an engagement platform that connects journalists with people who want to share their knowledge and insights. Caregivers spoke not only of challenges in navigating health systems, juggling work and children, and making ends meet, but also of the joy they gain from supporting their spouse, parent, child or friend.
The Santa Cruz couple had two young children when she became disabled about 10 years ago. "Meeting their needs as well as hers, while still trying to earn a living and take care of the house, has been tough," he said. "I have little time for myself and sometimes struggle with hopelessness."
In the survey, respondents were asked a series of questions to assess psychological distress. Nearly 14 percent of caregivers reported symptoms of moderate psychological distress, and 4.3 percent had symptoms of serious psychological distress – a condition that could signal the need for mental health care, Hoffman said.
Among caregivers with moderate or serious psychological distress, 76 percent said emotional distress interfered with household chores. Eighty percent said emotional distress interfered with their social lives.