Your family counts on you, so learn how to manage their health while still staying well yourself.
If you’re like the women in a Redbook/HealthyWomen/GCI Health survey, looking after your own health falls somewhere toward the bottom of your list, just under “Remind husband to schedule physical” and “Pick up tissues — not the scratchy kind.” Use this guide to safeguard your well-being too.
Quick quiz: Who was the last person in your home to nag a family member to take his or her medicine? When your kid needed to see the dentist, who drove? When a bill had to be disputed, who picked up the phone?
If your answers are “me,” “me,” and “Need you ask?” you’re not alone: Research shows that women are overwhelmingly the ones in charge of their families’ health care. Given how complicated and costly it can be, we do a bang-up job: In the HealthiHer survey, conducted by Redbook in partnership with HealthyWomen and GCI Health, almost 83% of women said they were happy to be the ones calling the shots, and about 70% felt they handled their kids’ health “very well,” thank you very much.
So, time to declare victory and go home, right? Not quite. Because when the question is how we’re taking care of ourselves, the numbers aren’t nearly as rosy. Less than half of us are making time for our health, like for screenings that can head off trouble down the road. That’s worrisome: “If you lose the captain, you’re going to lose the ship,” says Beth Battaglino, CEO of HealthyWomen, the nation’s leading nonprofit health information source for women.
Women step up without much thought for the toll caregiving can take.
By one estimate, just the at-home care you give a child—from finding an eye doctor to helping with his speech therapy—will eat up 60 hours every year. “And when it comes to our kids or parents, most of us want to be there for the appointments themselves,” says pediatrician Kristin Ray, M.D., a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. In fact, 80% of the women in the HealthiHer survey felt they couldn’t delegate their families’ health care; 40% of them said doing so would simply be too complicated. And while younger women were twice as likely to have someone they could ask for help, they were no more likely to do it.
This means, though, that we also shoulder what sociologists call the “worry work”: all the planning, anticipating—The kids are going to need checkups before school starts—and gnawing that’s more easily measured in wrinkles than in hours. The result, of course, is stress: Nearly 90% of the women in our survey described their stress levels as “moderate to high.” Almost 40% said they had been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
The pressure can make it nearly impossible to carve out time for our own care.
“When it comes to actually getting a mammogram or a bone density screening, moms think, I can barely get my kids to the dentist, let alone do that!” Battaglino says. In fact, most survey takers said it was lack of minutes rather than money that kept them from getting their checkups. Younger women—who tend to have littler, needier kids—were 10% less likely to get basic screenings and 10% more likely to say they put their kids’ care before their own.
For women who work outside the home, it’s not just how much time appointments take—it’s also the hours doctors’ offices keep, says Jane E. Miller, Ph.D., a researcher at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers University-New Brunswick: “You might only be able to set up an appointment between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.”
Still, women aren’t immune to the reality that our health matters too. “With serious conditions like heart disease and diabetes on the rise, it’s critical that women do what’s necessary to ensure we can be here for our families,” says Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health, a global healthcare communications company. While the women in the HealthiHer survey showed concern about things like reproductive health and Alzheimer’s, those who weren’t making time for regular screenings worried more about everything, from their stress levels to their eating habits to whether they’d get cancer. That may be proof that focusing on your own health will lower your stress, not add to it. “It isn’t selfish to put ourselves first,” Battaglino says. It’s an investment—in our health and in the health of our families.
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We are utterly capable of handling it all.
A funny thing about the stress and worry of caregiving is that it usually comes with another very different emotion: pride. Health care is so complicated that when we get things right—when that bill goes away, or we get our insurance to approve a specialist—we feel like we deserve a medal (and rightly so). Same with the constant juggling: “We’ve all had to pick up a sick kid from school, hand him a box of Nilla Wafers to keep him quiet, and power through a conference call,” Battaglino says. “Afterward, you’re proud that you were able to pull it off.”
Remember, if you lose the captain, you're going to lose the ship.
As any magician knows, though, pulling a rabbit out of a hat once is exhilarating, but having to do it over and over can be exhausting. “Caretaking feels second nature, so we take on the traditional role without really planning for it as much as we do other changes in our lives,” says Katie Martin, vice president for health policy and programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. But taking small steps now can help you take care of yourself and your family without sacrificing the pride you’ve earned:
Work-life balance — it’s all anyone wants to talk about, but that conversation needs to change. “It’s like women are sitting on a two-legged stool, and we constantly need to strike that balance to keep from falling down,” Lund says. “But, by taking care of ourselves, we’re adding a third leg, making everything at work and home much easier to handle.”
Find a medical home.
A doctor or nurse you can see regularly for day-to-day problems who can help coordinate your care with specialists when needed. You might consider sharing a family doctor with your kids. “It’s like having a project manager for your family’s health,” says neurologist Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical director for Consumer Reports, making it much simpler to treat a household virus or keep an eye on that heart murmur you passed down to your daughter. Even if you keep your own doctor, schedule your wellness exam when you book your kids’ checkups—then you’ll know it’s in your calendar, Battaglino says.
Make sure the office works for you.
When choosing a doctor, scope out some basic policies: whether it’s possible to get a same-day visit, how long patients usually have to wait for a routine checkup, and whether you can make those appointments and access your records online. While you’re asking these questions, get a read on the office staff. If they’re surly or inefficient, think of how that’ll feel the next time your insurance denies a claim and you need their help.
Know when the other stuff can wait.
Managing your health and your family’s is nonnegotiable, so leave the dishes from time to time. Practicing self-care will give you more energy to deal with all the little slings and arrows of our health-care system. “I have to exercise every day,” says Kasey Boehmer, a researcher and health coach at the Mayo Clinic. “I prioritize sleep. And I know that my social network has really helped to pull me through.”
Really talk to your doctor.
Visit the Patient Revolution for tips on how to talk to your M.D. about your life beyond the paper gown. “If a doctor tells you to do something that’s too much of a burden, you’re not going to do it,” Boehmer says. “Conversation is your most powerful tool to get treatment that fits your life.” The Patient Revolution can help you determine the things that are most important for your doctor to know and tackle barriers that keep you from bringing them up.
This piece appeared as part of a special package in the May 2018 issue of Redbook. For more, please also see "Joan Lunden on the Emotional Cost of Caregiving" and "How You Can Cover the Cost of Caregiving".