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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published August 26 2012

Bursack: Caregiver’s own health is often neglected

DEAR CAROL: My elderly parents have two or three medical appointments every week and I am the only person who is willing to take them. The result of this is that I don’t go to the doctor myself. I believe this is partly because I am exhausted from being in doctor’s offices so much. The other part is that if I did go for a check-up and something was wrong it could be too time consuming to handle my parents’ appointments and my own. I know you’ll tell me I should take care of myself, so I guess I’m just asking how common this is. – Grace

DEAR GRACE: Caregivers who neglect their own health for the reasons you cite are so common it’s almost normal behavior. I was like you, so I completely understand. With multiple elders to care for, sometimes I felt like I lived in doctor’s offices. I skipped mammograms, among other things. I knew that was unwise, but I just couldn’t face making the appointments for myself, let alone the follow through. I was fortunate that I didn’t develop health problems that worsened because of my self-neglect.

I remind people frequently of a well-known, but easily forgotten, statistic. Upward of 30 percent of people who are caregivers die before their care recipient. This number doesn’t only refer to elderly caregivers who may have life-threatening health issues even before they take on caregiving. The number includes many younger women who don’t get breast cancer diagnosed in early stages, as well as caregivers of both genders who only find colon cancer or other illnesses after the disease is too far along to successfully intervene.

Think about how your parents would feel if you developed advanced breast cancer. They’d realize that you spend a large amount of your time at medical appointments with them. That knowledge could lay an unfair burden on them. Even if one or both parent’s has cognitive issues that would make him or her unaware of the risk you are taking, you need to think about how they’d feel if they could comprehend what you are doing.

In your note, you write that you are actually afraid that a checkup may find something that needs treatment and you won’t have time to take care of it. Likely, if you have an illness so advanced that you have no choice but to have it treated you’ll have even less time than if the disease is caught early. It really is time to find someone to help you with your parents’ medical appointments. If there are no siblings to help, try finding volunteers through your church or a social organization.

Caregiver self-neglect is common, but it’s counterproductive to wise caregiving. If seeing these words in print will help you take action then please clip or bookmark this column as a reminder.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.