According to the Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 Report, 41.8 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone age 50 or older. Assuming responsibility for another person’s health, finances and happiness is, of course, a stressful undertaking. Complicating matters further, most of these informal caregivers are ill prepared for this role and have little support to assist them in their endeavors. This has turned into a growing public health issue as seniors live longer, develop more chronic health conditions, require more intensive care and look to family members to help them remain in their own homes as they age.
While managing a loved one’s health and supporting their wish to age in place can be very rewarding, family caregivers often feel overburdened as they try to meet their care recipients’ needs, look after their own families and perform at work. Self-care is usually the first thing to drop off the priority list, but this can have devastating effects.
The Emotional Effects of Caregiving
When stress is short-lived, the results are rarely damaging. In fact, acute stress plays a key role in enhancing focus and motivation to help us power through challenges. However, humans aren’t meant to endure elevated stress levels over the long term. There are already strong emotions at play when someone you love is ailing. Not only are family caregivers genuinely concerned for their loved ones’ well-being, but they also assume a certain degree of responsibility for it. Pressure to perform often comes from the care recipient, other family members, medical professionals and oneself.
Over time, these emotions and the intense pressure can transform into feelings of anger, resentment, frustration and exhaustion. Since there is often minimal support available to caregivers, loneliness and sadness can also arise. Most family caregivers do not anticipate how long their responsibilities will last. The average duration is 4.5 years, but those caring for individuals with progressive chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease can end up in this role for a decade or longer.
Caregivers who ignore the effects of chronic stress and do not prioritize their emotional health are at risk of developing caregiver burnout and more serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. It is crucial for caregivers to be keenly aware of their emotional limits and regularly take inventory of their moods and behavior. Irritability, mood swings and difficulty concentrating are indicators that it’s time to take a step back and evaluate how to minimize one’s responsibilities.
The Physical Effects of Caregiving
It is well known that mental and physical health are closely linked. Long-term stress can wreak havoc on dietary habits, sleep quality and the immune system. All these factors can be detrimental to a healthy person, but for caregivers with existing medical issues, they can be life-threatening.
To make matters worse, family caregivers frequently skip important preventive health measures for themselves. Doctor’s appointments, immunizations and recommended screenings are crucial for prevention, early detection and treatment of new and worsening health problems. Shortages of time, energy and funds are typically to blame for these oversights, as many family members place their care recipients’ needs before their own. The intention behind this gesture is good, but it can ultimately backfire.
An infamous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that spousal caregivers who experienced care-related mental or emotional strain had a 63 percent higher mortality risk compared to non-caregivers. Prioritizing your loved one’s needs is noble, but who will care for them if you are hospitalized, develop a need for long-term care yourself or pass away?
10 Health Problems Caused by Stress
Chronic stress will leave you feeling tense, nervous, restless and irritable. As you can imagine, a prolonged state of physical and emotional strain can seriously disrupt normal functioning of almost every organ system, thereby increasing your risk for health issues like:
- Weakening of the immune system, which increases vulnerability to colds and other infections
- Mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, panic attacks, depression, mood swings)
- Cardiovascular problems (e.g., high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, high cholesterol levels, increased risk of heart attack and stroke)
- Metabolic disorders (e.g., metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity)
- Gastrointestinal issues (e.g., ulcers, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, chronic bowel disorders)
- Muscle tension and pain (e.g., backaches, neck pain, jaw pain, tension headaches, migraines)
- Sleep problems (e.g., insomnia, stress dreams, sleep deprivation)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Respiratory problems (e.g., shortness of breath, rapid breathing, exacerbation of existing lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Worsening of skin conditions (e.g., eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, hives)
Self-Care Is Crucial for Caregivers
No caregiver is capable of being constantly “on duty,” and this includes health care professionals like nurses and doctors. Time off from providing care is not a luxury or an indulgence; it is a necessity. The best way to manage your mental and physical health and prevent problems from arising is to incorporate regular respite into your loved one’s care plan so you have the time and ability to care for yourself.
Respite care comes in many forms and ensures that your care recipient receives the supervision and assistance they need, allowing you to lend your full focus to other important tasks. In-home care services, adult day care, other family members, and senior centers can all provide a temporary reprieve from the responsibilities of caregiving. This newfound free time could be used to go for a walk outside, attend your own doctor’s appointments, take a well-deserved nap, perform breathing exercises, spend quality time with friends or engage in a hobby you love. All these things will help you mentally recharge and safeguard your physical health.
Naturally, you want the best for your care recipient, but you cannot provide that for them if you are not at your best. Stress is not simply a function of what you do; it is also a function of how you react to daily challenges. If your situation becomes too overwhelming, consider relinquishing some of your duties and prioritizing your own self-care—at least temporarily. It should be noted that progressive elder care issues like dementia, incontinence and frequent falls often overburden caregivers and precipitate permanent moves to senior living. This is a difficult decision for most families, but there is no shame in recognizing and accepting the need for more help.
AgingCare.com offers additional resources for caregivers, including information on how to assess and minimize caregiver burden, tips for coping with caregiver stress, and caregiver support groups. Without adequate self-care, family caregivers can jeopardize their own well-being as well as that of their loved ones.