Whether you’re taking care of a spouse or caring for elderly parents, stress usually plays a big part in caregiving. Left unchecked, caregiver stress can have detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who experience caregiver strain have a 63 percent higher risk of mortality compared to non-caregivers of the same age.
Furthermore, the consequences of chronically high stress levels extend beyond caregivers themselves. Physical, mental and emotional strain ultimately affect one’s ability to provide quality care. Remember, you can’t care for your loved one if you are ill yourself. If you were to pass away, who would fill your role as caregiver?
There are several factors that contribute to high caregiver stress, but a lack of resources and self-care tend to be the underlying issues. When you’re so focused on a loved one’s needs, it becomes difficult to prioritize your own—even when it comes to basic needs like adequate sleep, nutritious meals and social support. Look for the following red flags to get a feel for your caregiver stress levels, then learn how to deal with the stress of caring for an elderly parent or spouse.
10 Signs of Caregiver Stress
DepressionSymptoms of depression include constant sadness, feelings of hopelessness or caregiver guilt, loss of interest, and increased crying.
WithdrawalThis can occur if you are depressed. You may not wish to see family and friends. You may stop taking part in things you used to enjoy.
AnxietyYou may feel anxious to get things done, or you may feel that you don’t have enough time, money or energy to do the things you need and want to do. This can make you feel apprehensive about what the future holds and facing each new day.
AngerThe emotional effects of caring for an elderly parent or an ill spouse can be complex. Even if you love your care recipient, you may start yelling at them more or have difficulty controlling your temper with other people as your stress levels rise. Caregivers often grow angry at or even resentful of their care recipients because they are sacrificing their own lives to provide care. Feeling angry at other family members for not being helpful or supportive is also common.
Difficulty ConcentratingFamily caregivers are constantly thinking about their loved ones and everything that they need to do. As a result, it can be hard to focus on one task at a time while at home or even at work.
Changes in Eating HabitsCaregiver stress can lead to emotional overeating or appetite loss, which may result in unhealthy weight gain or weight loss. These changes in diet and weight can lead to health conditions like disordered eating, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
InsomniaFamily caregivers who are under high stress often feel tired but do not sleep well. Common sleep issues include an inability to fall asleep, waking throughout the night, and stressful dreams or nightmares.
ExhaustionIf you frequently wake up feeling like you can’t get out of bed despite a good night’s sleep, it is a clear sign of a physical and/or emotional problem.
Drinking or SmokingYou may find that you are drinking or smoking more to cope with increasing stress levels. Or, you may start drinking or coping by using substances when you haven’t in the past.
Health ProblemsYou may catch colds or the flu more often than usual. Chronic stress negatively affects the immune system and this damage can be further compounded by related lifestyle factors like poor sleep and diet, drinking and smoking.
10 Strategies for Coping With Caregiver Stress
Get RespiteRegular respite should be a part of every family caregiver’s care plan. Respite care allows you to take a break from caregiving while ensuring your loved one’s needs are met. Stepping away from these responsibilities and sources of stress will help you relax, make time for self-care and minimize the strain you are under.
Research Caregiver ResourcesFamilies may face several different barriers to finding quality care for their loved ones and obtaining respite for themselves. Paying for care is often one of the most challenging and stressful aspects of caring for an elderly parent or spouse. If you are caring for Mom and/or Dad, you should not be using your own money to cover their care costs.
If you need financial assistance or help paying for long-term care services, research elder care resources. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for information on federal, state and local programs that may be able to provide financial assistance or other services that can reduce your caregiver stress levels.
Set BoundariesIt can be difficult at first, but practice saying “no” to requests and obligations that are draining and stressful, such hosting holiday meals. Your time, money, energy and peace of mind are important, too. Instead of always accommodating everyone else’s requests and meeting their expectations, put yourself first. Say no to insensitive, unnecessary and unrealistic demands.
Accept Your LimitationsLearn to differentiate between the things you can and cannot change. You may not be able to control someone else’s behavior, but you can control the way that you react to it. Avoid dwelling on the things you cannot change, such as your loved one’s age and health issues. Instead, focus on what you can do to extend their independence and make them more comfortable and content.
Get OrganizedPrioritize, make lists and establish a daily routine. Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps that you can do one at a time. Staying organized will help day-to-day responsibilities go more smoothly and seem less overwhelming. This approach to caregiving will also ensure you’re as prepared as possible for emergencies.
CommunicateTry to keep in touch with family members and friends despite your busy schedule. Not only are these people sources of social interaction and support, but ideally they are members of your care team as well. Don’t hesitate to ask for and accept the help of family, friends and outside resources. They may not be willing or able to pitch in, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Seek Caregiver SupportJoin a support group for caregivers. If your time is limited, use an online support group like the AgingCare Caregiver Forum. If your loved one has a particular health condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, look for a support group for caregivers coping with that particular disease.
Stay ActiveMake time to be physically active as often as you can, even if you can only squeeze in a short walk here and there. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and increasing activity levels may help you sleep better, all of which can improve your mood, general well-being and immune function.
Attend to Your Own Physical and Mental HealthSee your doctor for routine checkups and preventive measures like your annual flu shot, but don’t forget to be proactive about your mental health, too. Do things that you enjoy and help you decompress. Watch mindless TV, read a good book, surf the internet or get coffee with a friend. Any “escape” from reality that offers an opportunity to relax is a way to reduce pressure. If you are having trouble relaxing and disconnecting from caregiving, consider seeing a mental health professional. A therapist can help you examine your caregiver stress and recommend additional strategies for minimizing your strain.
Consider Taking Time Off WorkIf you work outside the home, consider taking a break from your job. Eligible employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for an immediate family member. However, most experienced caregivers would caution against exiting the workforce permanently or for an extended period. Making care decisions that provide proper care for a loved one while you are gainfully employed is a better way to protect your future than leaving your job. Your career, financial stability and retirement benefits should remain a top priority.