Working with people who have cancer, I come into abundant contact with their caregivers, usually their spouses. I’ve written here about how the caregiver suffers, sometimes more than the patient does. Caregiving is all-consuming, unrelenting, exhausting, and too often under-appreciated. The physicians and others who treat patients assume that their mandate is to serve the patient, and that caregivers’ tribulations are outside medical responsibility.
Little wonder, then, that caregiving is such a hazardous occupation. Studies have found that caregivers are at risk for high blood pressure, impaired immunity, and cardiovascular disease. Spousal caregivers age 66 or older have a 63% higher mortality rate than noncaregivers the same age. It’s not as if we really need those studies; just ask a caregiver.
I’m beginning to realize that one way to get practitioners to take caregivers more seriously is to identify them as patients. Suppose a man with cancer, say, visits a doctor along with his wife. What would their care look like if the doctor recognized there were two patients to deal with?
Truly, doctors aren’t generally equipped to address caregivers’ problems, but they can be referred to appropriate professionals and support services. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but wills and ways depend on first seeing the situation.