I was walking out of the doctor’s office when I saw an elderly gentleman, about 160 pounds with a blue sweater and blue jeans on. Over his jeans he was wearing knee braces. I assumed his knees were bad because I observed him lift his 200 pound wheelchair bound wife into the car. I wanted to go to him and say, “Please get help and take care of yourself!”
As a geriatric nurse for the past 10 years, assisting elderly people to age in place I have seen the stress caregiving causes the spouse. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is a protein called Interleuken 6 (IL-6) which is a substance secreted from the cells to regulate our immune system. IL-6 is beneficial for when we have an infection, but not if we have high levels on a constant basis. IL-6 rises as we age and that causes chronic inflammation in our bodies that leads to cancer, osteoporosis (which is thinning of the bones, and dementia.
A study was done of married elderly couples. In one group e a spouse was a caregiver, in the other group the spouse was not a caregiver. Due to the stress of caregiving the spouse who was a caregiver had four times more IL-6 than their non-caregiver counterparts. Caregiver spouses are less likely to visit the doctor, have increased mental health problems and do not get enough sleep. This study supports what I see in the field, that caregiving spouses have more health problems in general.
In the United States there are close to 30 million spousal caregivers. These caregivers need to be taken care of. Another study was done of spousal caregivers to figure out how to lower one’s IL-6. One group received nutrition information and another group received phone calls helping them to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four times per week. The group that exercised had less IL-6 in their bodies.
Working in exercise can be challenging for spousal caregivers and that is why it is important to hire caregivers to give the spousal caregiver some much needed respite. It costs more in the long run to not hire help because if the spouse is unable to remain the caregiver , then alternative arrangements will need to be made for the disabled spouse. Make sure your loved one, who is a caregiver has time to exercise because exercise matters.
Kathy Cocks, RN