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Feature Article

Caring for carers. How GPs can help lighten the load

MARY BURBIDGE
OPEN ACCESS

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© peopleimages/istockphoto.com Models useD for illustrative purposes only
© peopleimages/istockphoto.com Models useD for illustrative purposes only

Abstract

Many of the 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia neglect their own mental and physical health to focus their energies on the person they care for. This article explores carers’ health issues and how they may present in general practice, including practical tips on how GPs can identify the stressors in carers’ lives and find ways to reduce that stress.

Key Points

  • The carer may not present as having a problem.
  • Stress is ubiquitous in caring; supportive listening is vital.
  • Mental health problems are common.
  • Physical health issues are those of the general population, as well as those caused and exacerbated by the caring role.
  • The carer may put their health issues on the back burner.
  • Support is available, but accessing it can be daunting.

Anybody can become a carer at any time. The role tends to land on people unexpectedly – a child has a disability, a family member has an accident or develops a disabling physical or mental illness, a parent or partner becomes dependent through frailty or dementia. People can find themselves working as unpaid carers, often for decades, due to devotion, expectations or lack of viable alternatives. 

There are around 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia. Most carers (about 70%) are female and of workforce age. Around one in 10 carers is aged under 25 years while many are past retirement age or even elderly. Over half of primary carers are not in paid jobs (Box 1).1 

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Many informal carers receive no assistance from formal support services and few belong to a carer support organisation. Some people find themselves caring for more than one person, simultaneously, serially or both, over the course of a lifetime.

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Although many carers are initially bewildered, dismayed and oppressed by their caring duties, often taken on at a time of great personal distress, they soon become ‘the expert’ in the needs and rights of the person they are caring for. They have a right to be listened to and respected in discussions about care issues and management. This dedication to their duty of care can be a factor in the neglect of their own health and personal needs.

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GPs are not always aware that a patient presenting with assorted stress-related issues has a caring role. Also, a devoted and busy carer may only ever present with the person they care for and that person’s health or management problems. It is important to gently explore for stressors in people’s lives and how they might be affecting their own health and wellbeing (Table).

Pages

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© peopleimages/istockphoto.com Models useD for illustrative purposes only
© peopleimages/istockphoto.com Models useD for illustrative purposes only
Dr Burbidge retired after 42 years in a suburban general practice in Victoria to become a full-time carer. She has had life-long family and professional experience of disability and caring. She was a member of the Guardianship and Administration Board in Victoria for six years and worked for the Developmental Disability Units of both Melbourne and Monash universities as a senior lecturer, clinician and researcher. Dr Burbidge is the author of a book, 'Forever Baby: Jenny’s Story, A Mother’s Diary', about caring for her daughter Jenny, who had severe disabilities and died at the age of 21 years.