The Caregiver as Invisible Patient
Doctors and other professionals may forget to ask caregivers how they are coping with the care of another. Queries such as whether the caregiver is eating properly, exercising, sleeping enough, becoming depressed or getting any free time may be overlooked. Thankfully, some physicians and other healthcare professionals have noticed the lack of care given to the actual caregivers.
The invisible patient is a person supporting an elderly family member who suffers with dementia, heart disease, diabetes, or all of the above. Currently in the United States there are about 50 million people providing this type of care to a loved one over the age of fifty.
Following are some of the risk factors for the invisible patient that should trigger assessment by a doctor: number of hours of caregiving, financial distress, level of cognitive impairment in the patient, level of education of the caregiver, depression, social isolation, a caregiver who lives with the patient, and lack of choice in being a caregiver.
Recommendations for treating physicians include a simple question such as how you are doing, to more complex questions about making other arrangements for care if something were to happen to the caregiver. Doctors are also encouraged to use a toolkit to assess the needs of the caregivers provided by the Family Caregiver Alliance (caregiver.org).
In larger teaching hospitals, social workers and other professionals usually assess caregivers when they bring in loved ones for treatment. Some hospitals require all medical students to spend at least one rotation on the geriatric floor, regardless of career aspirations, to better understand and appreciate the warning signs for caregivers.
Apart from doctors in private practice, others such as community agencies, visiting nurse services, geriatric care managers, and elder law attorneys are all part of the possible safety network to help invisible patients care for their loved ones.