Are you a caregiver and don’t even know it?

Maybe you buy groceries for an aging parent who has trouble getting to the store. Maybe you spend your lunch break chauffeuring them to a doctor’s appointment. Or perhaps you swing by their house on your way home to check if the fridge is stocked and the laundry isn’t piling up. Over time, you may do these things more frequently or take on more responsibilities such as administering medicine or providing personal care.

While caring for an aging parent has its rewards, the stress combined with juggling the demands of work and raising a family can take its toll.

“It could be over a period of years. And the stress can be slowly cumulative,” said Maureen Kelly, elder care counselor at UC Berkeley’s CARE Services for faculty and staff. “Caregivers may feel sad, agitated, have trouble sleeping or they can’t concentrate on a project. They’re flooded. They may think ‘I’m not doing anything well. I’m not being a good daughter or son. I’m not being a good parent or spouse. I’m not being a good employee.’ ”

Your campus Employee Assistance Program offers free, confidential one-on-one counseling on elder care concerns and coping with change, as well as other issues. Counselors can direct you to the right resources, help you navigate the complex legal and health insurance maze that accompanies elder care, and help you adjust to caregiving.

“People don’t know about the aging brain and what that behavior looks like,” said counselor Michelle Brown-Shelton at UC San Diego’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program. “Caregivers might not understand why mom keeps repeating something and get frustrated. Once they understand what’s happening in the brain, they’re more understanding. And I give them tips on how to have a conversation with someone with dementia.”

Some campus EAPs offer additional services. UC Berkeley, for example, has a support group that meets twice a month and holds monthly workshops on an aspect of aging such as understanding Medicare, tending an elder with dementia and self-care for caregivers. At UCLA and UC San Diego, the monthly support group sometimes features guest speakers who discuss hospice care, compassion fatigue and more. Call your campus EAP to learn what’s available.

It is unknown exactly how many UC faculty and staff serve as caregivers, in part because many do not identify themselves as caregivers.

Nationally, 43.5 million Americans care for someone over the age of 50, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, which runs the National Center on Caregiving. Caregivers experience higher levels of stress and suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general population. One study found 40 percent to 70 percent of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.

Caregivers also are at greater risk for high blood pressure, obesity and other health problems, according to the FCA, because they often sacrifice their own needs to take care of someone else’s.

Feeling caregiver stress or frustration is normal and understandable. As Kelly explains, the experience of caring for an elder is different from someone without these responsibilities. Someone raising a healthy baby, for example, expects that child to grow up and have a bright future. But for caregivers, the time and energy that’s invested doesn’t stop the deterioration an elder will inevitably face as part of aging.

“Caregivers are continually dealing with a sense of loss. ‘My mom can’t see as well as she used to. My dad was a physicist but now he can’t remember his children’s names,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of grieving and a pervasive sadness, in addition to the stress.”

Many become caregivers not by choice, but by circumstance — such as when a parent falls, loses his or her memory or when there’s no one else to take charge — which can exacerbate stress, Kelly added.

Each person’s situation is different, depending on a variety of factors: Does the elder have dementia? Do you have siblings to share the responsibility? Can you afford extra help or are you cash-strapped? Is the parent-child relationship strained or healthy?

“It’s physically taxing and emotionally draining,” said Nanette Levine-Mann, co-director and elder care counselor at UCLA’s Staff and Faculty Counseling Center who facilitates an ongoing monthly caregivers support group. “And if you’re doing it long distance, you’re flying back and forth. You worry about whether they’re getting enough care or if you’re doing enough.” 

So how can UC faculty and staff get help and take care of themselves while tending to an elder?

  • Talk to an aging parent or spouse about finances, health care and support systems. Make a plan. Organize important documents and information.
  • Set realistic goals. Assume a reasonable amount of responsibility.
  • Take care of yourself. Get proper rest. Eat well. Pay attention to your body’s warning signs: problems sleeping; trouble concentrating or loss of interest; feeling sad or agitated; feeling tired; change in eating habits resulting in weight gain or weight loss; feeling that nothing you do is good enough; physical symptoms that don’t decrease with treatment such as digestive problems or headaches. If you experience these for more than two consecutive weeks, you may have depression.
  • Reduce your stress. Meditate, do an enjoyable activity, talk to a friend or delegate responsibilities.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When it’s offered, accept it.

“People think ‘this is my parent, this is what I need to deal with,’ but everybody needs help,” Brown-Shelton said. “And it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Helpful Resources for Caregivers

  • Your campus Employee Assistance Program provides free, confidential counseling to faculty and staff. Find your campus EAP here.
  • Sittercity is UC’s new online resource to help you find caregiver services. UC pays the fee that gives you access to Sittercity’s database of pre-screened caregivers complete with reviews and references. You choose who to hire, negotiate rates and pay the caregiver.
  • Elder Care Locator is a free nationwide service to help elders and caregivers find resources in their community. Call 800-677-1116 and you will be connected with the local Area Agency on Aging.
  • Family Caregiver Alliance provides education, services, research and advocacy for caregivers nationwide. Their Family Care Navigator connects you with local support groups, respite programs and more.
  • Alzheimer’s Association operates a 24-hour-a-day helpline at 800-272-3900. They offer education, support groups and resources for people with memory loss and their caregivers.
  • Find a geriatric care manager through the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.

This article is part of UC's yearlong series aimed at raising awareness about workplace stress and depression.