Not enough is stated about the physicality required of caregiving;
The bodily strength demanded.
The willingness and ability to provide a presence of support.
Caregiving is labor.
It is work.
Certainly, for family caregivers, it is often a labor of love, a work of commitment;
But, nevertheless, it is work.
Hard work; often, strenuously so.
There are millions upon millions of family caregivers in this country, spanning ages and generations, counties and cultures. They perform daily care tasks, which are often physical in nature, in addition to offering constant emotional support to the loved one in their care.
They are praised, cheered, given a good pat on the back, for being so loving, so caring, so compassionate and empathetic.
And all of that may very well hold true.
Why else would family members choose to take on the uncompensated labor and demands involved in caregiving? Surely for such feelings as love, care and compassion, even if those feelings fall on top of an underlying sense of duty, calling, and perhaps, obligation to family.
We frequently talk about the mental load of caregiving, and the impact on the carer's physical and emotional wellbeing. And certainly, there is a financial impact. Caregiving is expensive. It also changes relationships: Between the caregiver and the recipient of care, but also the relationships that exist (or once did exist) within the caregiver's larger network of support. It alters their community.
That is all true. A growing body of research shows it to be true.
And there are far too few supports for caregivers to help combat these challenges. That, we also know to be true.
In terms of the physical impact of caregiving, research on the topic increasingly focuses on the connections between unpaid caregiving and heart disease, high blood pressure, stress, and other related health and medical conditions.
These are all health challenges that can obviously impact the caregiver's quality of life, as well as their ability to continue providing care to their loved one in the future.
However, what is often overlooked in this research is the impact of the actual day-to-day physical labor of caregiving and its impact.
Research considers the long-term impact of caregiving on one's probability of developing heart disease, but it fails to consider how the daily tasks of lifting and bending and heaving and hauling, all of which are necessary parts of caregiving, completely wreck the caregiver's body.
Most medical research on caregiving and all of the fancy reports coming from government agencies and well-respected organizations leave out discussion of that daily grind, the physical pain, the aching backs, the dizziness from stiff necks, the chronic pain that radiates from the shoulders and hips and knees and feet of caregivers, that worsens over time, over years and even decades of caregiving.
The "professionals" rarely consider such mere bodily issues when they can set their sights on the higher prize of "solving" caregiver-induced stress and depression by finding new ways to promote the "self-care" of "mindfulness" and breathing exercises. As if we can simply breathe our way out of physical ailments.... As if the onus of problem-solving around the physical impact of caregiving, too, should be packed on the shoulders of caregivers, rather than leaders and thinkers in the care sector and with effective policymaking by the elected officials with whom we place such responsibility.
No. Very few with the power to provide support, to change policies, to create programs consider the day-to-day strenuousness of caregiving.
Except for the caregivers themselves, of course.
Because we feel it. Physically.
And, like everything else, we are largely left on our own to address the impact.
In caregiving circles, we worry together about what will happen when our backs give out, when our knees grow too weak, when our bodies can no longer support the weight of lifting and holding and transferring our loved ones from place to place.
We take strength training classes, not necessarily for the sake of our personal health, but because we know that our strength is directly tied to the degree of independence our family member will sustain. We are driven to extend that independence as long as possible -- for their benefit -- at least, for as long as our bodies will hold out.
We hire personal trainers for the singular purpose of learning how to lift a heavy weight in the most efficient, effective and least damaging way possible. We must maintain our capacity to dead lift another human being, as they grow and as we age... forever.
And we find tricks that help us push through each day of work.
If I wear shoes with good arch support throughout the day, then my ankles don't ache quite as much the next day.
If I stretch before bed each night, then I won't wake up the next morning with a migraine from the shoulder pain caused by the lifting and transfers of the day before.
If I slather my lower back with CBD salve every morning, I can just make it through the day.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these strategies. Not at all. Though, they do read like the placing of Band-Aids on wounds that require surgical repair. The physical impact of caregiving is too deep and too chronic to solve with Icy-Hot and a can-do attitude.
Research on caregiving issues is critical. We need more of it.
A lot more of it.
And we need research that focuses on both the long-term impacts of caregiving, such as hypertension, heart disease, anxiety and depression, as well as the short-term daily impact on the physical and mental health of caregivers.
We need that research.
And then, immediately after the research happens, we need real policy solutions and programs designed to support the millions of caregivers literally picking up and carrying on their shoulders the weight of the care sector in this country.