One minute, an hour, a few rare snippets of lucid conversation, a chance to hold hands one more time. These are the treasured gifts that most people caring for an aging, sick or disabled loved one wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. However, these gifts may come during an emotionally difficult time — while caring for a loved who’s ill, disoriented, immobile or in pain.
About one-third of the adult U.S. population reports being a caregiver, and many are caring for an aging parent. If you’re a caregiver, you know that providing care to a loved one in need is extremely rewarding. You also probably know that it can be extremely stressful and emotionally debilitating.
Deemed caregiver stress or caregiver burnout, this state of physical and emotional strain can take its toll. And because there are more female caregivers than male caregivers, it’s not surprising that many women tend to feel the emotional stress of caregiving more acutely than men, suffering more bouts of anxiety and depression, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
The type of stress caregivers feel can range from the fear of not being a good enough caregiver to feelings of guilt over slighting other obligations, as well as feelings of loneliness, isolation and sheer exhaustion. Add to that the difficulty of caring for a loved one who may be argumentative and critical as a result of dementia, and the pressure escalates. By the time many family members realize they’ve officially become caregivers, they’re already suffering from the symptoms of caregiver fatigue and are headed for burnout.
Although caregiving will never be a painless experience, there are ways to mitigate stress and salvage your health as a caregiver. Consider these suggestions for alleviating caregiver burnout:
Get help. Even in large families, one member usually takes on primary caregiving responsibilities. But that doesn’t absolve siblings — or in the case of spousal caregivers, adult children and grandchildren — from obligation. They’re often in the wings, waiting to be asked to help or told what to do. If you’re the caregiver, speak up. Tell family members what you need and what you expect from them. If you don’t have family support, look outside the family for other resources to provide respite, run errands or prepare a meal.
Take care of you. According to the American Psychological Association, many caregivers neglect their own health. They don’t eat properly, fail to manage chronic conditions and sometimes forgo their own preventive health care. Caring for another shouldn’t come at the expense of your own health. Take the time to eat properly, keep your own doctor appointments, take medication as directed, take a multivitamin and get some exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk.
Sleep when you can. Lack of sleep puts caregivers at high risk for illness by lowering their resistance to disease. In addition, tired caregivers who are themselves seniors are more likely to suffer accidents and falls. As a caregiver, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per day. The brain’s frontal lobe especially relies on sleep to function effectively. Without adequate rest, the brain’s ability to access memory, control speech and resolve problems is greatly hampered.
Stay in touch, and tap into technology if need be. Loneliness and isolation contribute to feelings of depression among caregivers. Keep in touch with friends and family, and plan outings or short trips. Even if you can’t go out with friends as much as you’d like, keep in touch via email and social media. In addition, use face-to-face communication programs, such as Skype and FaceTime, to connect your loved one with distant family members and friends.
Seek new resources. Respite care is the most important stress reliever for long-term caregivers. Sometimes, calling on family and friends won’t be enough or won’t be possible, so familiarize yourself with community resources, and be willing to use them. Call your area agency on aging for information on transportation options, meal delivery services and adult day care centers.
Online resources like Care.com can be a great way to find in-home assistance such as companions, housekeepers and cooks. Once you’ve established regular respite care, do something good for yourself with the time. Go to a movie, visit friends, have a date night with your spouse or get your hair done. It really can ease caregiver stress and prevent symptoms of burnout such as those below.
Take the next steps
The physical and emotional consequences of caregiver burnout may include changes in appetite (weight gain or loss), frequent infections, addictions to alcohol or prescription drugs, loss of concentration and increased sensitivity to pain.
The good news is that caregiving does have certain positive health effects. If caregivers can manage stress, they’re likely to cherish the time spent with their loved one and emerge with a sense of profound gratitude and a more positive outlook on life.
If you realize that you or your loved one is experiencing caregiver stress, take the necessary steps to improve physical and mental health:
- First, recognize that fatigue is present and that it’s negatively affecting your daily life. Speak up and get support.
- Take time to identify and implement the right solutions, such as those mentioned above, to manage stress and avoid caregiver burnout. Get help from your family, friends or even short-term nursing homes.
Approaching the task of caregiving with a clear understanding of the risks and rewards can pave the way for a meaningful and emotionally enriching life journey.