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Caring for the Caregiver: Water From an Empty Cup

Caregiver – woman helping senior man with shopping

Twenty years ago, former first lady Rosalynn Carter gave a speech in which she said, “There are only four kinds of people in this world: Those who have been caregivers; those who currently are caregivers; those who will be caregivers; and those who will need caregivers.”

She was right: We all give and receive care at varying times in our lives. We all occasionally need to lean on a loved one. And we all need to recognize that we can’t serve others unless we first care for ourselves.

According to the 2015 report Caregiving in the U.S., issued by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute, one in five caregivers experiences a high level of physical strain as a result of caregiving, while two in five consider their caregiving situation to be emotionally stressful. Many provide help or are “on call” without relief, leaving little time for the respite that comes from spending time with other family members or friends — which, in turn, can cause caregivers to become detached from their social support networks.

Given that loneliness and isolation have been associated with a range of adverse physiological and health outcomes, as shown in AARP Foundation’s new study, A Profile of Social Connectedness in Older Adults, it’s not a stretch to say that caring for a loved one can lead to diminished health.

Women make up the majority of unpaid caregivers in the United States: 60 percent. It’s worth noting that there’s little variance in race or ethnicity within that 60 percent; whether white, black, Hispanic or Asian American, the majority of caregivers are still women.

Oftentimes, they’re caring for their children and their parents simultaneously — the classic “sandwich generation” phenomenon. Family caregivers also take on a disproportionate share of household duties like scheduling, financial management and house cleaning, as well as being advocate, personal shopper and consoler-in-chief. Low-income women, who are already struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table, feel the weight even more keenly.

There’s a saying that you can’t pour water from an empty cup. Yet millions of caregivers try to do just that, contorting themselves in an attempt to be all things to all people — inevitably at the expense of their own physical, mental and financial well-being. This exacts a cost not just on them but on our society, particularly where women are concerned. Women may be caregivers, but they’re also vital connectors, whether between family members or within their communities. When they wear themselves to a frazzle, those connections begin to fray, to the detriment of us all.

If you’re a caregiver who’s burning the candle at both ends, give yourself and your loved ones the gift of self-care. Take a walk around the block. Call a friend to chat, or invite one over for coffee. If possible, take a day or even a half-day per week away from primary caregiver responsibilities; a small break can make a big difference in the quality of both your life and your relationship with the person who receives your care. And check out the resources for maintaining social connections and accessing help at

While you’re at it, stick a note on your mirror to remind yourself that the earth won’t spin off its axis if you take a few minutes for yourself. “Sometimes,” as Etty Hillesum wrote, “the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.”

Additional Resources

Connect2Affect Local Assistance Directory

Elder Care Locator

PBS Caring for Your Parents: Caregiver’s Handbook

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