Caregiver Stress

A caregiver is someone who gives basic care to a person who has a chronic medical condition. A chronic condition is an illness that lasts for a long time or doesn’t go away. Some examples of chronic conditions include:

  • cancer
  • afteraffects of stroke
  • multiple sclerosis
  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The caregiver helps the person with many tasks. These include shopping, preparing and eating food, cleaning, taking medicine, bathing, and dressing. Caregivers also provide companionship and emotional support.

Some caregivers are paid. Many are friends or family members of the person who needs care. Providing care for a loved one can be rewarding. But it can also be very challenging. Many caregivers often feel stress due to their caregiver role.

Why is caregiving so hard?

Caring for a loved one who is seriously ill is never easy. You are often “on call” almost all the time. It may be hard for you to juggle the different parts of your life. This could include work, chores, caring for children, and caring for the person who is sick. You may feel like you don’t have any free time.

Caregiving is also hard because you often see many changes in your loved one, such as the following:

  • The person you’re caring for may not know you anymore due to dementia.
  • He or she may be too ill to talk or follow simple plans.
  • He or she may have behavior problems, like yelling, hitting, or wandering away from home. This may be especially true if the person you’re caring for suffers from dementia.

You may have a hard time thinking of the person in the same way that you did before he or she became ill.

Is it normal to have so many different feelings about being a caregiver?

Yes. It’s normal for you to have many different feelings about your role as a caregiver. At times, you may feel scared, sad, lonely, or unappreciated. You may feel angry and frustrated. You may feel guilty or feel that life isn’t fair. All of these feelings are normal.

How can I tell if caregiving is putting too much stress on me?

It’s normal to have a lot of conflicting feelings. It’s not normal for these feelings to last for a long time or to disrupt your life. Because being a caregiver is so hard, some doctors think of caregivers as “hidden patients.” Studies show that caregivers are much more likely than noncaregivers to suffer from health problems. These could include stress overload, depression, anxiety, and other issues.

Path to improved well being

Learn to tell whether your feelings are normal, or are signs of too much stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, there are things you can do.

Talk to your family doctor. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about how you’re feeling. Tell your doctor about all of your symptoms. He or she can recommend coping methods, support groups, counseling, or medicine to help you feel better.

Talk to your loved one and your family. You may feel that you shouldn’t burden people with your feelings because you’re not the one who is sick. But talking about the illness and how you feel can help relieve stress. Talk with your loved one, other family members, or friends who can provide support.

Take care of your health. Studies show that caregivers are more likely to suffer from a number of health problems. The following can help manage stress and minimize your risk for health problems:

  • Avoid using alcohol and tobacco.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • See your family doctor for preventive care.

Read “Caregiver Health and Wellness” for more information.

Educate yourself about your loved one’s medical condition. Find out all you can about the condition your loved one has, the treatment he or she is going through, and its side effects. Being informed can give you a sense of control. Your loved one’s doctor, support groups, the internet, and libraries are good resources for more information.

Stay organized. Caregiving is often a full-time job. You may be doing it on top of other responsibilities. These could include a paid job or taking care of your children. Make a schedule with your family. This will help all of you stay organized and will help you manage the demands on your time. Don’t forget to schedule time for things you enjoy. These could include visiting with friends, or going out to dinner or a movie.

Look for help in your community. Community services provide different kinds of help. These include meal delivery, transportation, and legal or financial counseling. They also include home health care services such as physical therapy, nursing, or respite care for you. Respite care workers can stay with your loved one while you take a break. You can check your church or synagogue for services or volunteers who can help you. You can also ask for help from support organizations or join an online community.

Join a support group. Support groups allow you to share your feelings and experiences with other people going through similar situations. Your doctor can suggest local support groups. Or you can do an online search for groups near you.

Seek counseling. Recognizing that you need help takes strength and courage. It can be helpful to talk with a counselor about how you’re feeling. Your doctor can refer you to a therapist who specializes in the kind of counseling you need.

Things to consider

Sometimes the stress of caregiving for a loved one becomes overwhelming. This can lead to stress overload and even depression. Watch for these signs.

Signs of stress overload

  • feeling overwhelmed or helpless
  • anxiety or irritability
  • excessive anger toward the person you care for, your family, or yourself
  • health problems (such as heartburn, headaches, or catching a series of colds or flu)
  • sleep problems (sleeping too much or not enough)
  • social withdrawal
  • unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

Signs of depression

  • change in appetite; unintended weight loss or gain
  • crying easily or for no reason
  • feeling sad, hopeless, or helpless
  • feeling slowed down, restless or irritable
  • feeling worthless or guilty
  • headaches, backaches, or digestive problems
  • loss of interest in sex
  • no interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • sleep problems (sleeping too much or not enough)
  • trouble recalling things, concentrating or making decisions
  • thoughts about death or suicide.

If you think you are suffering from stress overload or depression, call your family doctor. He or she can help you manage your feelings and stress. This could be through stress management techniques, counseling, or medicine.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What can I do to prevent getting stress overload?
  • Are there ways I can take a break from caregiving?
  • What signs should I look for that I’m doing too much?
  • Can this stress cause physical symptoms?
  • Would a support group help me?
  • Do I need medicine to be able to cope with the stress of caregiving?