Caregiver stress is due to the emotional and physical strain of caregiving. Caregivers report much higher levels of stress than people who are not caregivers. Many caregivers are providing help or are "on call" almost all day. Sometimes, this means there is little time for work or other family members or friends. Some caregivers may feel overwhelmed by the amount of care their aging, sick or disabled family member needs.
Although caregiving can be very challenging, it also has its rewards. It feels good to be able to care for a loved one. Spending time together can give new meaning to your relationship. Remember that you need to take care of yourself to be able to care for your loved one.
Who gets caregiver stress?
Anyone can get caregiver stress, but more women caregivers say they have stress and other health problems than men caregivers. And some women have a higher risk for health problems from caregiver stress, including those who:
- Care for a loved one who needs constant medical care and supervision. Caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia are more likely to have health problems and to be depressed than caregivers of people with conditions that do not require constant care.
- Care for a spouse. Women who are caregivers of spouses are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol and are twice as likely to have heart disease as women who provide care for others, such as parents or children.
Women caregivers also may be less likely to get regular screenings, and they may not get enough sleep or regular physical activity.
What are the signs and symptoms of caregiver stress?
Caregiver stress can take many forms. For instance, you may feel frustrated and angry one minute and helpless the next. You may make mistakes when giving medicines. Or you may turn to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or drinking too much alcohol.
Other signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling alone, isolated, or deserted by others
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Gaining or losing a lot of weight
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Becoming easily irritated or angered
- Feeling worried or sad often
- Having headaches or body aches often
Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and ways to relieve stress. Also, let others give you a break. Reach out to family, friends, or a local resource.
How does caregiver stress affect your health?
Some stress can be good for you, as it helps you cope and respond to a change or challenge. But long-term stress of any kind, including caregiver stress, can lead to serious health problems.
Some of the ways stress affects caregivers include:
- Depression and anxiety. Women who are caregivers are more likely than men to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression also raise your risk for other health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.
- Weak immune system. Stressed caregivers may have weaker immune systems than noncaregivers and spend more days sick with the cold or flu. A weak immune system can also make vaccines such as flu shots less effective. Also, it may take longer to recover from surgery.
- Obesity. Stress causes weight gain in more women than men. Obesity raises your risk for other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
- Higher risk for chronic diseases. High levels of stress, especially when combined with depression, can raise your risk for health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis.
- Problems with short-term memory or paying attention. Caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer's disease are at higher risk for problems with short-term memory and focusing.
Caregivers also report symptoms of stress more often than people who are not caregivers.
What can I do to prevent or relieve caregiver stress?
Taking steps to relieve caregiver stress helps prevent health problems. Also, taking care of yourself helps you take better care of your loved one and enjoy the rewards of caregiving.
Here are some tips to help you prevent or manage caregiver stress:
- Learn ways to better help your loved one. Some hospitals offer classes that can teach you how to care for someone with an injury or illness. To find these classes, ask your doctor or call your local Area Agency on Aging(link is external).
- Find caregiving resources in your community to help you. Many communities have adult daycare services or respite services to give primary caregivers a break from their caregiving duties.
- Ask for and accept help. Make a list of ways others can help you. Let helpers choose what they would like to do. For instance, someone might sit with the person you care for while you do an errand. Someone else might pick up groceries for you.
- Join a support group for caregivers. You can find a general caregiver support group or a group with caregivers who care for someone with the same illness or disability as your loved one. You can share stories, pick up caregiving tips, and get support from others who face the same challenges as you do.
- Get organized. Make to-do lists, and set a daily routine.
- Take time for yourself. Stay in touch with family and friends, and do things you enjoy with your loved ones.
- Take care of your health. Find time to be physically active on most days of the week, choose healthy foods, and get enough sleep.
- See your doctor for regular checkups. Make sure to tell your doctor or nurse you are a caregiver. Also, tell her about any symptoms of depression or sickness you may have.
If you work outside the home and are feeling overwhelmed, consider taking a break from your job. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for relatives. Ask your human resources office about your options.
Reference: US Department of Health and Human Services
Lsat updated May 2017
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