The feeling of being overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for an older loved one goes by many terms: caregiver stress, compassion fatigue, and caregiver burnout, to name just a few. This phenomenon has so many names for a simple reason: it is incredibly common among family caregivers.
Fortunately, because caregiver stress is such a common experience, there are well-documented strategies for identifying the problem before it becomes overwhelming and ways to manage the day-to-day stresses of family caregiving to ensure both the caregiver and recipient of care remain safe, happy and healthy.
What is caregiver stress?
Caregiver stress can manifest as different emotions for different people, but most caregivers report a feeling of being overwhelmed, angry, sad, frustrated, or simply exhausted. Feeling these emotions from time to time can be totally normal, but if left unattended, can grow from temporary moments of doubt to long-term shifts in how you treat yourself and others around you.
Below are some of the most common ways caregivers report feelings of stress:
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Gaining or losing a lot of weight
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Feeling sad
- Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
- Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
If you feel you are experiencing these symptoms, now is the time to look for help. If you are unsure of whether or not you are experiencing elevated levels of stress, consider taking this helpful survey which you can take on your own and self-grade.
Effects of caregiver stress
Prolonged exposure to stress can have significant impacts on your overall well being, as well as your ability to care for others.
Common effects of caregiver stress include:
- Impaired memory and attention, making it harder to stay on-task and focused.
- Depression and anxiety, resulting in a higher risk of heart disease and significant impacts on quality-of-life.
- Higher risk for chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease, which can impact your ability to care for yourself and others.
- Long-term exposure to stress results in a weakened immune system, leading to being sick with colds and flus for longer periods of time, and increasing your risk of passing a disease to other vulnerable people in your household.
- Stress also leads to changes in exercise, eating and sleeping patterns, which can contribute to weight fluctuations and obesity, increasing the risk of heart disease, impaired mobility and other significant health risks.
Managing and overcoming caregiver stress
Every caregiver experiences stress and doubt from time to time and it is important to remember that this is in no way a personal failing or sign that you do not care for your loved ones. In fact, choosing to ignore the warning signs of stress and not taking time to perform self-care can be a greater disservice to those who need you.
Below are some simple ways to manage caregiver stress and ensure both you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy.
- Accept help. Compose a list of tasks you need help with and ask friends and family members if they can pitch in. Let them choose the task they feel comfortable performing (taking your loved one on a walk, running errands, etc.) and use that time to give yourself a break.
- Focus on what you are able to provide. Caring for a family member in need is an act of love and an incredible gift to give. No one is a “perfect” caregiver, so do not hold yourself to an unrealistic standard. Focus on the tasks you can do well to help and do not stretch yourself thin performing more than you can sustain.
- Set realistic goals. When making to-do lists and thinking about future tasks, break large goals into smaller items you can tackle one at a time. This will lower the risk of feeling overwhelmed.
- Get connected. Chances are there are many resources available to support you within your community. Look for resources to assist family caregivers, or family caregiver support classes.
- Join a support group. Being a family caregiver can feel extremely lonely, so finding others in similar situations can be an invaluable way to combat social isolation, both for yourself and your loved one.
- Seek social support. Setting aside time for yourself and meeting with friends and family every week is a critical way to stay motivated and receive the emotional support you need.
- Set personal health goals. You cannot provide good care if you run yourself into the ground. Set attainable health goals around your sleep, eating and exercise schedule to ensure you remain physically capable of providing for your loved one.
- See your doctor. Many family caregivers forgo their own medical appointments because they feel compelled to stay at home. Doing so might undermine your long-term health and ability to care for others. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your experience as a family caregiver so they can give you the attention you need.
Considering Respite Care
While the strategies listed above can help family caregivers keep stress in check, sometimes there is no substitute for a brief break from caregiver responsibilities. Seeking short-term, outside assistance from professional caregivers from time to time can make all the difference when it comes to stress management.
These options include:
- In-home respite care: Professional home health care agencies are a great resource for family caregivers who need a little time every week to focus on their own needs and wellbeing. By scheduling the same professional caregiver to lend assistance every week, you can create a reliable, consistent experience for yourself and your loved one.
- Adult care centers and programs: Spending time outside of the home can be a great way to alleviate stress for caregivers and recipients alike. As an added bonus, these centers provide opportunities for social engagement your loved one might otherwise be lacking.
- Short-term nursing homes. Unlike day programs offered at adult care centers, these facilities are a great option for family caregivers who wish to travel, but are unsure if their loved one will be safe at home on their own. Short-term nursing homes offer activities, meal services, medical assistance and oversight provided by medical professionals.
SelectCare applauds the incredible work performed by family caregivers every day. Our agency has spent nearly 40 years proudly supporting New York family caregivers and their loved ones.