Pick up that phone. Dash off a text or an email. Issue a dinner invitation or make a date for a casual lunch. Or just drop by to see that friend or loved one who struggles with the burdens of caring for someone in poor physical or mental health.
Why now? Why not? Paula Spann deserves credit for her latest New York Times column highlighting the “unbearable” loneliness and isolation that caregivers confront as, other experts estimate, 43.5 million Americans provide $470 billion in tough, unstinting, and unpaid work for loved ones.
Even as they do so, however, they often must abandon their own careers and chunks of their own lives, watching with sadness as their social contacts and intellectual interests narrow, especially as their worlds become consumed with washing, feeding, entertaining, and keeping safe a spouse, grandparent, uncle, aunt, or other loved one. Their woes can be especially great if they’re caring for loved ones with the increasingly common and hugely demanding conditions of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As Carey Wexler Sherman, a gerontologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, tells Spann: “Caregiving is done with a lot of love and affection, but there’s a lot of loss involved. People talk about friends disappearing, about even family members not wanting to be involved. It’s a lonely business.”
Social isolation, whether due to crushing logistical demands or by sad choice, can harm caregivers’ health and well-being, Spann notes, reporting:
[A] habit of avoiding others — or watching them avoid you — collides with a growing body of research showing how damaging isolation and loneliness can be. They are associated with a host of ills, including heart disease and stroke. Among older people, isolation is linked to depression, even higher mortality. Lonely old people, Dutch researchers have found, are more apt to develop dementia. We’ve long thought of these factors as dangers for the people being cared for. But they also imperil caregivers, who are often older adults as well.
Spann offers some suggestions, including various programs, so caregivers can keep up social contacts. The AARP also offers resources, ideas, and suggestions.
But, really, this is an important concern that might be addressed well on an individual level—a little empathy, time, and compassion from each of us could go a long way to people we call friends and more.
In my practice, I see the huge harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the major toll that their debilitation takes on their families, friends, and other loved ones, especially if they must commit to long-term care. It’s a significant issue, not just in economic but quality of life terms.
Women carry disproportionate, even unfair, care giving burdens. Unlike many men, many women’s tighter ties and greater socialization can offer them health boons. That’s why care giving’s isolation and loneliness can be doubly painful for them and why all may wish to reach out to help. It’s good for caregivers and us, too.