Most patients have families that are providing some level of care and support. In the case of older adults and people with chronic disabilities of all ages, this “informal care” can be substantial in scope, intensity, and duration. Family caregiving raises safety issues in two ways that should concern nurses in all settings. First, caregivers are sometimes referred to as “secondary patients,” who need and deserve protection and guidance. Research supporting this caregiver-as-client perspective focuses on ways to protect family caregivers’ health and safety, because their caregiving demands place them at high risk for injury and adverse events. Second, family caregivers are unpaid providers who often need help to learn how to become competent, safe volunteer workers who can better protect their family members (i.e., the care recipients) from harm.
Caregivers spend a substantial amount of time interacting with their care recipients, while providing care in a wide range of activities. Nurses have a limited view of this interaction. Caregiving can last for a short period of postacute care, especially after a hospitalization, to more than 40 years of ongoing care for a person with chronic care needs. On average, informal caregivers devote 4.3 years to this work. Four out of 10 caregivers spend 5 or more years providing support, and 2 out of 10 have spent a decade or more of their lives caring for their family member. This is a day-in, day-out responsibility. More than half of family caregivers provide 8 hours of care or more every week, and one in five provides more than 40 hours per week.