The demands on a person who is taking care of elderly parents or an aging spouse can result in a great deal of stress. If caregivers aren't careful, they can jeopardize their own health and well-being. A study of family caregivers found that those who experience caregiving-related stress have a 63% higher mortality rate than non-caregivers of the same age. The impact of stress ultimately impacts your ability to provide care; remember you can't care for your loved one if you are ill yourself.
There are several reasons why caregivers experience high amounts of stress; not sleeping enough, having to deal with family and work at the same time, and not having time in the day to practice self care. Look for these signs of caregiver stress and then enlist the support of friends, family, or professionals to provide the resources you need to improve your own well being.
Signs of caregiver stress
- Depression. Symptoms include constant sadness, feelings of hopelessness and increased crying.
- Withdrawal. This 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.
- Anxiety. You may feel anxious to get things done or you may feel that you don't have enough time, or about facing another day and what the future holds.
- Anger. You may start yelling at your loved one more, or have difficulty controlling your temper with other people. Caregivers often become angry at their loved one because they are sacrificing their own lives to care for them. Feeling angry at family members for not helping is also common.
- Loss of concentration. You are constantly thinking about your loved one and everything that you need to do. As a result, you have difficulty concentrating at home or at work.
- Changes in eating habits. This results in weight gain or loss, as well as increased illness.
- Insomnia. You may feel tired, but cannot sleep. Or, you may not feel tired even if your body is tired. You also may wake up in the middle of the night or have nightmares and stressful dreams.
- Exhaustion. If you frequently wake up feeling you can't get out of bed despite a good night's sleep, you're in distress.
- Drinking or smoking. You may find that you are drinking or smoking more. Or, you start drinking or smoking when you haven't in the past.
- Health problems. You may catch colds or the flu more often than usual. This is particularly common in caregivers who do not take care of themselves, by not eating properly and exercising.
14 Strategies for Controlling Caregiver Stress
- Get Respite: Use respite and healthcare resources available to you without guilt. Taking a break while ensuring your loved one is well cared for is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
- Seek Advice: Financing care is one of the most stressful aspects of caring for a loved one. If caring for parents, you should not be using your own funds for care. If you need financial help, seek the advice of an elder law attorney. If your parents have the financial ability, it is possible for you to be paid as a family caregiver. Although there are fees for the services of an elder law attorney, they can help define a plan for paying for future care and can assisst with the complex process of completing applictions for Medicaid or VA benefits. Alleviating the stress of these processes may be well worth the fees.
- Set Boundaries: Say "no" to requests that are draining and stressful, such as hosting holiday meals.
- Accept Limitations: Forgive yourself for your imperfections. There is no such thing as a "perfect" caregiver.
- Let Go: Identify what you can and cannot change. You may not be able to change someone else's behavior, but you can change the way that you react to it. Don't dwell on the things you cannot change, focus on moving forward.
- Set Realistic Goals: Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time.
- Get Organized: Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine.
- Communicate: Keep in touch with family and friends to ask for help. Making time for yourself will require that you both ask for and accept the help of family, friends, and outside resources.
- Seek Support: Join a support group for caregivers. If time is limited use an online support resource like the AgingCare Caregiver Forum. If your loved one has a particular affliction, such as Alzheimer's or dementia, look for a support group provided for caregivers coping with that disease.
- Stay Active: Make time to be physically active on most days, even if it's a short walk. Eating a healthy well-balanced diet and increasing activity levels may improve your ability to get better sleep.
- Attend to your own Health: See your doctor regularly for checkups.
- Laugh: Keep your sense of humor and practice positive thinking. Watch mindless TV, read gossip magazines, or surf the internet. Any "escape" from reality that offers an opportunity to relax is a way to reduce pressure.
- Utilize Community Resources: Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Your Area Agency on Aging is a great, free resource that can recommend community services and support groups near you.
- Consider Time Off: If you work outside the home, consider taking a break from your job. Employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for relatives. However, most experienced caregivers would caution against this as a permanent idea. Making care decisions that provide proper and safe care for a loved one while you are gainfully employed is a better way to protect your future than leaving your job entirely. Your retirement benefits and ability to provide for yourself should remain your first priority.