Caregivers often experience psychological, behavioral, and physiological effects that can contribute to impaired immune system function and coronary heart disease, and early death, reports the National Institutes of Health.
The demands on the family caregiver have never been greater. People are living longer, often with at least one chronic condition, while hospital stays are getting shorter and medical services more expensive, leaving a significant amount of care left for loved ones to provide. These loved ones are often adult children with families of their own, full-time careers, and limited health care knowledge. And their numbers are growing.
About 66 million Americans care for an aging, seriously ill, or disabled family member or friend, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. A majority of caregivers are female and nearly two-thirds are employed full or part-time.
As family caregivers become more crucial in the delivery of complex health care – most commonly associated with advanced age, dementia, and cancer – they are at risk of suffering from caregiver stress. Caregiver stress is the emotional and physical strain of caregiving. Individuals who experience caregiver stress are the most vulnerable to changes in their own health.
In a 2011 AARP study, “Valuing the Invaluable: The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving, one-third of caregivers described their responsibilities as “highly stressful.”
Indeed, compared to non-caregivers, caregivers often experience psychological, behavioral, and physiological effects that can contribute to impaired immune system function and coronary heart disease, and early death, reports the National Institutes of Health.
Signs of Caregiver Stress
If you are a family caregiver, you may be so consumed with caring for your loved one that you lose sight of your own needs, such as getting plenty of rest, eating a healthy diet and exercising, which can lead to medical problems such as heart disease and diabetes. Also, many family caregivers experience depression and anxiety as a result of the stresses in their life. Be on the lookout for the following signs of caregiver stress, courtesy of the Mayo Clinic:
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Feeling overwhelmed and irritable
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Gaining or losing a lot of weight
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
Help is Available
It’s important that family caregivers take advantage of the numerous resources available to them. For a great starting point, go to www.medicare.gov/caregiver. This site helps you learn how to find state and local resources to support caregiving tasks, access in-home services, care for someone with a chronic illness, plan for the future, as well as take care of your own health care needs.
Having a positive attitude, recognizing your limitations as a caregiver and knowing when to get help goes a long way in being an effective caregiver. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends families consider professional and volunteer services such as home care, home-delivered meals, and transportation services, as well as enlist the help of a community social worker or local hospital advocate for guidance.
Many caregivers mistakenly try to do everything themselves rather than seek out the help that is available to them. The National Family Caregivers Association encourages family caregivers to follow these tips:
- Choose to take charge of your life, and don’t let your loved one’s illness or disability always take center stage.
- Remember to be good to yourself. Love, honor and value yourself. You’re doing a very hard job and you deserve some quality time just for you.
- Watch for signs of depression and don’t delay in getting professional help when you need it.
- When people offer to help, accept the offer and suggest specific things they can do.
- Educate yourself about your loved one’s condition. Information is empowering.
- There’s a difference between caring and doing. Be open to new technologies and ideas that promote your loved one’s independence and help you do your job easier.
- Trust your instincts. Most of the time they’ll lead you in the right direction.
- Grieve for your losses, then allow yourself to dream new dreams.
- Stand up for your rights as a caregiver and as a citizen.
- Seek support from other caregivers. There is great strength in knowing that you are not alone.