En español | Taking care of a loved one who has dementia, physical disabilities or other age-related conditions makes demands on your time, energy and emotions — demands that, as the Cleveland Clinic warns, “can easily seem overwhelming.”
Caregiving can tax your patience and foster fatigue, frustration and guilt, becoming a grueling grind that takes a heavy toll on the caregiver's body and mind. The effects on physical and mental health are well documented:
- Thirty-six percent of family caregivers characterize their situation as highly stressful, according to the "Caregiving in the U.S. 2020" report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC).
- In the five years since AARP and NAC last conducted the national survey, the proportion of caregivers describing their health as excellent or very good dropped from 48 percent to 41 percent.
- A 2018 study from insurance firm Genworth found that four in 10 caregivers experienced depression, mood swings and resentment as a result of their labors.
- Research cited by the American Psychological Association found that among people age 55 to 75, those who are caregivers show a 23 percent higher level of stress hormones, which can lead to high blood pressure, and a 15 percent lower level of immune response, making them more vulnerable to the flu and other infections.
Over time, that physical and psychological wear and tear can lead to caregiver burnout — a condition of feeling exhausted, listless and unable to cope. It can cause caregivers to make mistakes that could endanger a loved one, such as mismanaging medication, or lead to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or alcohol abuse.
That's why it's so important to watch for signs of caregiver burnout and take proactive steps to deal with it before it spirals out of control.
Warning signs of caregiver burnout
The Alzheimer's Association cites these 10 indicators that a caregiver may be experiencing a high level of stress:
• Anger or frustration toward the person you're caring for
• Exhaustion that makes it tough to complete your daily tasks
• Health problems, such as getting sick more often
• Inability to concentrate that makes it difficult to perform familiar tasks or causes you to forget appointments
• Irritability and moodiness
• Social withdrawal from friends and activities that you used to enjoy
Another tool to evaluate whether tending to a loved one is taking a toll is an 18-question caregiver self-assessment called “How Are You?" that the American Medical Association developed and the American Psychological Association recommends.
Tips to reduce caregiver stress
Give yourself a break. Ask a friend or relative to fill in for you for a few hours occasionally so you can take a walk, watch a movie or go out to dinner.
If you don't have that sort of informal support available or feel you need more structured respite care, look into other options through the Access to Respite Care and Help (ARCH) National Respite Network and Resource Center's National Respite Locator, which can help you find adult day care centers and home care services in your area.
Simplify your communication. Keeping extended family and friends up to date about your loved one's situation through phone calls or individual emails can be tiring, and you may not want to broadcast that information on social media.
Tap into online resources. The U.S. government's Eldercare Locator can connect you with your local Area Agency on Aging, which can guide you to resources in your community to help you deal with the challenges you are facing.
You also can call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.
With the Community Resource Finder, an online database from AARP and the Alzheimer's Association, you can find a range of programs and services in your area, from elder law attorneys to transportation. The Family Caregiver Alliance's Family Care Navigator can help you locate local resources, too.
Join a support group. If you feel like you're alone in your struggle, talking with other family caregivers can lift your spirits and help you think through solutions to various problems.
You may be able to find a support group through a local church or hospital, or at the website of the Well Spouse Association, which coordinates a national network of groups for spousal caregivers.
If you're taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, the Alzheimer's Association offers a locator for support groups in your area. AARP has an online caregiving forum and a Facebook discussion group where caregivers can share information and advice, and the Family Caregiver Alliance operates an online support group that communicates via email.
Nurture positive relationships. You may be overwhelmed, but take the time to talk with your closest friends and family members.
Spend an evening with someone who is a good listener. Limit your interactions with negative people who will drag down your mood and perspective.
Take care of your own health. Set a goal to establish a good sleep routine and to exercise a certain number of hours every week.
Be sure to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. See your doctor for recommended immunizations and screenings.
Tell your physician that you're a caregiver and bring up any concerns you may have. A daily relaxation and meditation practice can be beneficial as well.
Editor's note: This article, published on October 21, 2019, has been updated with information from the "Caregiving in the U.S. 2020" report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.