The decision to become a family caregiver is a highly personal one. Caregivers are motivated by a sense of loyalty, a desire for closeness, and a wish to pay back for past caregiving.
What might not be considered, however, is the cost of caregiving. Most people know that caregiving will take time out of their day and require a measure of physical and emotional strength. But that only scratches the surface.
In this article, we’ll examine five costs to caregiving that go beyond mere time and effort expended.
1. Career Advancement
Economics has a term called “opportunity cost,” which describes what a person could have done instead with the time or money they just spent.
The average family caregiver for an elderly loved one spends 24 hours a week providing care, according to statistics compiled by the National Caregiving Alliance. But that’s the average. A quarter of them spends the equivalent of a full-time job — 41 hours a week — giving care.
If they hadn’t been spent caregiving, how many of those hours would have been spent working overtime at work? Attending a professional development conference? Moving to a different state to take a promotion?
More than keeping people from moving forward in their careers, however, caregiving often sends them back. Thirty-nine percent of family caregivers leave their jobs to have more time for their loved ones. Working caregivers report that spending more than 15 hours a week caregiving comes at significant cost to their careers.
After four years — the average length of caregiving — the costs of those decisions add up. The decision to become a caregiver costs women an average of $324,000 in lost wages; men lose an average of $284,000.
Aside from lost wages, caregiving comes with real, pecuniary costs.
A study done by AARP found that family caregivers spend, on average, nearly $7,000 a year on out-of-pocket on caregiving expenses. That represents 20 percent of the average caregiver’s annual income.
The average went up slightly for family caregivers looking after an older adult (to nearly $7,100) and went up substantially for caregivers of loved ones with dementia (to nearly $10,700).
The major expenses include helping their loved ones with their housing expenses, medical expenses, and travel expenses if the caregiver had to travel.
Those numbers still don’t capture the full cost. Because of those higher out-of-pocket costs, 16 percent of caregivers report cutting back on their retirement savings, which means they’ll forego years of compounding investment returns during their own retirement.
3. Physical Health
The individual components of caregiving aren’t necessarily difficult, but it is a mistake to think they can’t hurt.
Caregiving requires constant vigilance. The role has an indefinite end, generally lasting for years. The responsibilities are unpredictable and not in the control of the caregiver. It bleeds over and disrupts the caregiver’s work life and family life. In fact, according to an article in the American Journal of Nursing, “Caregiving fits the formula for chronic stress so well that it is used as a model for studying the health effects of chronic stress.”
The effects of this chronic stress are both physical and psychological. The nursing journal article notes that measures of physical health decline for caregivers at the macro-level, including an increase in chronic conditions; at the physiological level, including a decline in immune function; and in regard to health habits, including poorer diet, sleep, and exercise.
These health problems are worse when caregiving for someone with behavior problems, cognitive impairment, functional disability, or who requires constant monitoring to prevent self-harm.
All of those criteria are present for dementia caregivers, which makes them particularly vulnerable to health declines.
4. Mental Health
The stress of caregiving also comes at the cost of mental health, which declines in a similar pattern to physical health.
The nursing journal article notes that caregivers experience increased depression and stress and decreased levels of self-reported well-being compared to non-caregivers.
Those declines are greater when the person being cared for has behavior problems, cognitive impairment, and functional disabilities. These are all traits of dementia, and dementia caregivers experience greater levels of distress and depression than other caregivers.
Also, older caregivers, spousal caregivers, and women caregivers experience greater declines in mental health, on average, than other caregivers.
5. Social Health
Just as the hours spent caregiving can’t be spent at work, they also can’t be spent at play. Caregivers often find that their world increasingly focuses on their loved one, and they have less time for their own hobbies and social relationships.
A study on social isolation in caregivers in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that caregivers experience significant amounts of loneliness. They reported feeling restricted in how they could spend their time. Their caregiving came with constant demands that required significant planning to be able to set aside for a social outing and they felt confined.
Having friends visit them can also be problematic, especially if someone is caring for a loved one with dementia, as unfamiliar visitors can be a source of anxiety and agitation.
Although the cost of caregiving is real, so are the benefits.
Despite the hidden costs of caregiving, 95 percent of caregivers say their experience is worthwhile, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center. They report they find benefits in giving back to someone who has cared for them and the satisfaction of knowing that their loved one is getting excellent care, and some report they feel that they are passing on a tradition of care and that, by modeling caregiving, their children will be more likely care for them.
To learn more about the true costs of being a family caregiver, common family conflicts that can occur when caring for parents, and some of the unexpected challenges of caregiving, download our 11 Most Common Caregiving Challenges eBook.