Let's Talk: How can we help women with caregiver stress?

By Lisa Twang, Jul 15, 2021

Caregivers come in all shapes and forms: people caring for the elderly, their children, or siblings. They do so much for their loved ones, and it’s time they had more support. Since the pandemic, caregivers have spent even more time looking after their families at home, especially when schools, childcare and eldercare centres were closed for safety. 

Most caregivers are women: of the 210,000 informal caregivers in Singapore, 60 per cent are female1 Female caregivers play a vital role in society, but face many challenges as well. Last year, 60 per cent of working mothers rated their stress levels at 7 out of 10,  2 while caregivers of people with dementia also reported an all-time high increase in stress. 3 These troubling stress levels indicate a risk for poor health, depression, and burnout.

Caregiving is unquestionably costly: if a caregiver gives up paid work or a promotion to look after a loved one, that entails an opportunity cost. Still, this story is not about the financial cost of caregiving, but the mental and emotional hardships female caregivers face — and how they can get the help they so desperately need. 

 

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As a working mum, I know how tough caregiving can be. Since my daughter Tully was born five years ago, I’ve discovered a new level of exhaustion from looking after another human’s needs. 

I’ve traded a corporate career to become a freelance writer, while having time to cook, clean and break out Monopoly Junior when Tully runs over and says: “Mummy, play with me!” 

At times I’ve felt my mental health crumbling, and my anxiety levels rising. And I know I’m not alone: female caregivers have shouldered an even heavier care burden during COVID-194 During this year’s Budget debate, MPs called for more mental health support for the female majority of family caregivers who sacrifice their time, energy, and careers.

If not managed well, the daily stress of caregiving can lead to caregiver burnout. It’s a huge problem, and can make caregivers feel exhausted and lonely.

The Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) relates caregiver burnout to chronic stress, which releases stress hormones that lead to exhaustion, irritability, a weakened immune system, sleep disturbances and weight changes. Prolonged caregiver burnout increases the risk of mental health issues: and in extreme cases, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

Financial data sales manager Grace Lau, 38, knows the pain of caregiver burnout. At 24, she struggled to care for her elderly mum, who was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. An only child whose father had also passed away, Grace struggled to look after her mum just as she was starting a demanding career as an IT consultant. 

“When Mum’s illness made her spiral downhill, I hired a helper to look after her while I worked, and would rush home to be with her whenever I could. But between working long hours and caring for Mum, I was really tired. 

“I didn’t feel my peers could understand what I was going through. Sometimes I resented that my friends were having fun clubbing in our 20s, while I was busy caring for Mum.” 

 

Caregiving can also threaten to erode caregivers’ sense of self. If they continually give to their dependents at great cost to themselves, it can hurt their confidence and self-esteem.

Giving up full-time work to care for Tully has made me torn between my personal aspirations, and my desire to give my daughter the best care possible. Sometimes I feel gripped by an identity crisis, where I wonder if caregiving has become — and will always be — my main job. 

I have great respect for full-time female caregivers: stay-home mums, and daughters who look after their parents in their twilight years. But when I see my husband and other peers achieving their career dreams, I feel the sting of being held back by my mothering duties. 

It’s easier to care for someone else when you feel personally fulfilled, and a career is one way to do that. As MP Joan Pereira said in the Budget debate this year, "In addition to self-actualisation, work is important to one's sense of dignity and identity.” Without the option of paid work outside of caregiving, caregivers may feel more helpless and unhappy. 

One obvious solution is for men to share more of the caregiving burden when possible. But deeply-entrenched gender roles can make it hard to shake the status quo of women doing the lion’s share of caregiving. 

Despite close to nine in 10 Singaporeans agreeing that household and caring responsibilities can be shared by husband and wife, about one in two mums say the responsibility of child caring, academic and moral education lies mainly with them. 5 There’s a disconnect between wanting gender equality in caregiving, and actually practicing it. 

Speaking to other female caregivers, I quickly realised that the mental load (the often invisible mental work of household organising and planning) was a key part of caregiver stress. And traditionally, the mental load has fallen mostly on women.

Mother-of-two Jean (@wishywashi on Dayre), who is 29 and works in healthcare, says her husband is about 10 per cent involved in raising their girls. Her mother-in-law does the bulk of caregiving while Jean works.  

“Right now jobs like coordinating family outings, disciplining the kids and researching their future primary schools are all on me, and it’s very stressful,” Jean says. “I wish my husband would help me share the mental load, because that’s what tires me out the most.”

Jean has asked her husband to help her more, but says he’s pretty traditional, and sees his role as the provider while she is the caregiver: even when she’s working, too. 

“My husband sees things in a practical way: he believes that for every hour he helps out with the girls, that’s one less hour he could be earning money. He’s also gotten used to me caring for our daughters: so he feels it’s just easier and faster for me to keep doing it.”

 

For men to share more of the mental load of caregiving, both men and women must be willing to distribute tasks more evenly. This often requires a shift in thinking, but it’s an adjustment that can help caregivers greatly.

Gender equality organisation United Women Singapore’s volunteer and stakeholder manager, 48-year-old Anupama Kannan, has found a good balance caring for her two children, one of whom has special needs. She and her husband have roughly split caregiving duties 50-50: Anupama’s husband mainly helps with transport and family outings, while she handles the cooking and housework.

“The societal expectation of women having to bear a disproportionate load of the caregiving burden has to change,” she says. “It is not just about urging men to step up to do more of the caregiving and household chores, but also about women letting them do so!”

Giving men a bigger role in caregiving can start small. My husband has always been open to helping me with childcare duties, and recently he’s also started tying Tully’s hair for school. He may not do ponytails and braids perfectly, but I resist the temptation to swoop in and take over. I’m giving him the chance to learn, and letting go of the idea that ‘it’s the mother who must do it’.

“Men should not be seen as just ‘helping out’, but taking as much ownership for caregiving and household responsibilities as women,” says Anupama. “When the children see this become a reality at home, their gendered expectations will be shaped accordingly.”

Connecting female caregivers with community support groups also helps them feel less alone. These groups can provide personal guidance, and practical caregiving tips.

It’s encouraging to see more workplaces provide caregiver support now. Though her mother has passed on, Grace now helps other female caregivers in her current company’s women’s community. It aims to empower women to aspire to and keep leadership positions, helping them balance family responsibilities with work by offering flexible work opportunities. 

“I know how overwhelming it is to be a caregiver, and how tough it is to juggle work while looking after a family member,” she says. “I want to be a resource people can tap when they’re at a crossroads in their career, by advising on their options, and helping them take time off and come back refreshed.

Ang Sok Leng, who is in her 50s and helps care for her elderly mum, also volunteered for her company’s caregivers’ support group.  She believes peer-to-peer support is key to caregivers’ personal wellbeing. Her passion to help fellow caregivers started when she experienced her elderly mother-in-law’s deteriorating mental health, and her family needed to learn about dementia. 

“It’s much easier to go through the care journey with others who fully understand the challenges,” she says.

“Our group organised talks on caregivers' mental health, how to reverse fragility, the importance of self care and managing family issues in wealth transfers. We also worked with a company to enable staff to buy specialised adult care items like adult diapers conveniently.  

“Recently, through partnerships with Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), we organised staff training programs. These have benefited many, and created awareness of resources to support caregivers.

Even if you work in a small company or are not formally employed, organisations like CAL and AIC offer free training programmes and support services. A list of local caregiver support organisations is listed at the end of this article, for caregivers from all walks of life.

Self-care is also an important part of female caregivers’ lives. To look after others best, we must first look after ourselves.

37-year-old single working mum and Dayre user @stardreamz, who prefers to remain anonymous, felt “completely burned out every single day” during last year’s Circuit Breaker period. It was a sobering reminder for her to make time for herself, and tap on caregiving help from her mother. 

“Don't coop yourself up at home with your kid 24/7, as it’s not healthy,” she advises. “If you can, pamper yourself: visit a spa, catch up with friends, and meet people. I do that and come home feeling rejuvenated, which makes me a better mum.” 

“Also, don’t force yourself to put up a strong front, and accept help. You will blossom, and become happier and more confident.”

Caregiving is a labour of love, and it’s time female caregivers received more love in return. Our work may feel invisible, but it’s essential: and we don’t have to do it alone.

It takes a whole-of-society effort to support caregivers: policy changes, flexible working arrangements and understanding from companies, and shifts in thinking about gender roles for family caregivers.

Caregiving can feel like a mammoth task. But even if we’re not caregivers ourselves, we can do our part by checking in on our caregiver family and friends.

Offering to help babysit their children, accompany their parents for medical appointments, and taking them out for a meal are small but important steps to making them feel appreciated. And if we’re caregivers, reaching out and asking for help is equally vital, so we don’t drown under the weight of looking after others.

At times, I envy my single or child-free girlfriends who have no dependents and more time for rest and play. But I’m also reminded that there is joy in looking after a loved one, even when the days feel endlessly long and difficult.

Female caregivers can find respite when more men step up to help, and when they have flexible and understanding work and family environments, and if they can find comfort and support from their fellow caregiver peers. Only then can they thrive in their roles and care for themselves, as well as others. 

Photo by Ketut Subinyanto on Pexels. 

 

Some non-profit organisations and groups that support caregivers in Singapore include: 

 

Agency for Integrated Care

Alzheimer’s Disease Association

AWWA Caregiver Service

Caregivers Alliance Limited

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin)

Focus on the Family

Single Parent Support Group

Singapore Association of Mental Health

Touch Community Services

 

 

Writer's Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about how my husband and I split the housework and parenting duties for our daughter Tully, and why being a mum has brought me so much joy, though it can be mentally and physically draining.

Join me and 15,000 other women on Dayre who share the big and small moments of their life with a supportive community.

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1 From a 2011 survey, Caregiving in Singapore, by the Ministry of Health. 

2 From a 2020 study by Focus on the Family, on the state of motherhood in Singapore. 

3 From a 2020 study by the Annals of Geriatric Medicine and Research, Impact of Coronavirus Disease Pandemic on Persons with Dementia and Their Caregivers.

4 From a 2020 survey, Family Caregivers and COVID-19, by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.

5 From a 2021 study, Unpaid Care Work, by United Women Singapore and Ipsos. 

 

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