Family Caregiver Month – Taking a Closer Look at Caregiver Stress
Acting as a family caregiver for an older loved one can be incredibly rewarding work, an opportunity to give back to those who helped shape us into the people we are today. In fact, more Americans than ever are choosing to act as family caregivers and more than 80 percent of all in-home long term care is currently provided nonprofessional caregivers.
While family caregiving is an incredible way to give back to the older generation, the day-to-day challenges of balancing a career, caring for children and managing the changing condition of a family care recipient can strain even the most dedicated caregiver.
In recognition of November as Family Caregiver Month, SelectCare Home Care Services takes a closer look at caregiver stress – defining caregiver stress, explaining how it can affect caregivers and care recipients, and offer strategies you can use to maintain peace of mind while still providing the care your loved one deserves.
Family caregiving can be extremely rewarding, however serving as a loved one’s sole caregiver, companion and link to the larger world means many caregivers must sacrifice time and attention on their own needs to focus on those of their loved one. When caring for a loved one with a progressive disease, these pressures are compounded because the care recipient is likely to decline in health despite a caregivers best efforts,leasing to feelings of helplessness or futility.
Caregiver stress is incredibly common, however, a recent survey by the Mayo Clinic found the following factors increase the likelihood of extreme stress:
- Living with the person you are caring for
- Social isolation
- Having depression
- Financial difficulties
- Higher number of hours spent caregiving
- Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
- Lack of choice in being a caregiver
Since family caregivers often put the needs of their loved one before their own, it’s easy to miss the early warning signs of caregiver stress. It is critical for family caregivers to periodically step back and evaluate their own wellbeing. Signs of caregiver stress include:
- 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
The Effects of Stress
Long-term stress can have a serious impact on caregivers and their ability to effectively help their loved ones. The most obvious manifestations of stress include tension, irritability, anxiety, loss of appetite, headaches, and sleep problems. If left unaddressed, these
symptoms can create a feedback loop resulting in higher and higher stress levels for caregivers and recipients alike.
Prolonged periods of stress tax the body’s sympathetic nervous system, resulting in higher levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related hormones. Those under stress are also at a higher risk of illnesses ranging from common colds and viruses to cardiovascular and autoimmune issues due to a weakened immune system and a tendency to forgo regular doctor’s visits in order to focus on the health and well-being of a loved one in their care.
These stress-related health issues can chip away at a caregiver’s mental and physical health, ultimately making it harder to provide an appropriate level of care.
Strategies to Overcome Stress
No matter how dedicated a caregiver you may be, feelings of anxiety and stress are completely natural. Rather than ignoring the warning signs, it is critical that caregivers take steps to ensure they keep stress levels in check. Remember, if you fail to take care of yourself, it will be impossible to provide meaningful support to a loved one in need.
The Mayo Clinic offers the following strategies for managing stress levels:
- Accept help. Be prepared with a list of ways that others can help you, and let the helper choose what he or she would like to do. For instance, one person might be willing to take the person you care for on a walk a couple of times a week. Someone else might offer to pick up groceries or cook for you.
- Focus on what you are able to provide. It’s normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a “perfect” caregiver. Believe that you are doing the best you can and making the best decisions you can at any given time.
- Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time. Prioritize, make lists and establish a daily routine. Begin to say no to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals.
- Get connected. Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Many communities have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing. Caregiving services such as transportation and meal delivery may be available.
- Join a support group. A support group can provide validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. People in support groups understand what you may be going through. A support group can also be a good place to create meaningful friendships.
- Seek social support. Make an effort to stay well-connected with family and friends who can offer nonjudgmental emotional support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it’s just a walk with a friend.
- Set personal health goals. For example, set a goal to establish a good sleep routine or to find time to be physically active on most days of the week. It’s also crucial to fuel your body with healthy foods and plenty of water.
- See your doctor. Get recommended immunizations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver. Don’t hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have.
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 Home Care Services applauds everyone who chooses to take an active role in the care of their family members. Every member of our staff has personal experience serving as a family caregiver and we understand the incredible challenges and rewards that come with this decision.