Caring for loved ones pressures even the most resistant people. If you are a caregiver, take steps to preserve your own health and well-being.
As the population ages, more caregiving is being provided by people who aren't health care professionals. These informal caregivers provide 80 percent of long-term care in the United States.
A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, such as an ill spouse or partner, a disabled child, or an aging relative. However, family members who are actively caring for an older adult often don't self-identify as a "caregiver." Recognizing this role can help caregivers receive the support they need.
Caregiving is rewarding but stressful
Caregiving can have many rewards. For most caregivers, being there when a loved one needs you is a core value and something you wish to provide.
But a shift in roles and emotions is almost certain. It is natural to feel angry, frustrated, exhausted, alone or sad. Caregiver stress — the emotional and physical stress of caregiving — is common.
People who experience caregiver stress can be vulnerable to changes in their own health. Risk factors for caregiver stress include:
Having fewer years of formal education
Living with the person you are caring for
Higher number of hours spent caregiving
Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
Lack of choice in being a caregiver
Signs of caregiver stress
As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don't realize that your own health and well-being are suffering. Watch for these signs of caregiver 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
Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
Too much stress, especially over a long time, can harm your health. As a caregiver, you're more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, you may not get enough sleep or physical activity, or eat a balanced diet — which increases your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Strategies for dealing with caregiver stress
The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. That's why it's so important to take advantage of the many resources and tools available to help you provide care for your loved one. Remember, if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to care for anyone else.
To help manage caregiver stress:
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.