If you are heavily involved in the caregiving of a family member or friend, no one needs to tell you how challenging and stressful that role can be.
But did you know that the chronic stress of intense caregiving can negatively affect your overall mental and physical wellbeing? Research reveals that being a stressed-out caregiver can be hazardous to your health.
Caregiver Stress and Illness
Stress is a natural part of life, and your body is equipped to handle short bursts of physical and emotional challenges—and then return to a sense of balance. But ongoing stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. That’s especially true for long-term caregivers.
“Prolonged caregiving—that is, caregiving that goes beyond a short-term illness—can increase stress and the levels of [the hormone] cortisol that negatively impact caregiver health,” says Kathleen Kelly, executive director of the Family Caregiver Alliance National Center on Caregiving.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2011 annual Stress in America study, “…those who serve as caregivers—providing care to both the aging and chronically ill—for their family members report higher levels of stress, poorer health and a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors to alleviate that stress than the population at large.”
Those behaviors include smoking, eating poorly, getting little sleep, failing to exercise and missing physical checkups.
The APA study also reports that caregivers are more likely (82 percent) to have a chronic illness than are non-caregivers (61 percent)—namely, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, excess weight or obesity and depression.
The Challenges of Caregiving
Given the mental and physical energy caregiving demands, it’s no wonder that caregiving puts your health at risk. Caregiving can involve a combination of many tasks, including dealing with financial matters, coordinating medical care, setting appointments, shopping, providing transportation and helping with basic daily personal care (bathing, toileting, dressing). The amount of stress you experience as a caregiver depends on your own finances, employment situation and family and community support.
If you have other major life stressors, such as social isolation, a demanding job or boss, are struggling financially, raising children, caring for someone with advanced dementia or have a disability of your own, chances are, you’re experiencing a high degree of ongoing stress already and are at risk for developing a chronic illness of your own.
Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, adds another factor: the issue of choice. “If you ask a caregiver, ‘Did you have a choice in becoming a caregiver?’” she says, “the people who say ‘I did not have a choice’ are more likely to be stressed and burdened by caregiving.”
Special Issues for Women
Female caregivers experience even greater pressures. Despite their social and economic gains, women comprise 65 percent of family caregivers—55 percent of whom also work outside the home, according to Hunt.
“Women tend to put in more hours than men,” says Hunt, “plus women, of course, tend to be juggling a lot more of the parenting tasks, too, so they may be doing parenting, caregiving and a full-time job as well.”
Adds Kelly: “Coping daily with a too-long to-do list, feeling that they can't live up to everyone’s expectations and taking on too much of the responsibility for everyone’s happiness will drive women to exhaustion.”
Often, women’s caregiving is more hands-on and intense. “In general, men tend to take on more of the household, financial and legal tasks,” explains Kelly, “and women do more personal care and keep relationships within the family going. But there are always those men who do personal care, too—especially spouses.” Nevertheless, says Hunt, “women are still the majority of those identified as the primary caregiver and as such, take on the majority of responsibility.”
Coping with Caregiving
How well you manage your stress can determine how well you care for your loved one. Because your role as a caregiver is vital to that person’s wellbeing and quality of life—and equally important to you—it’s crucial that you take care of yourself to avoid burnout as much as possible.
You can stay physically strong and keep your emotional batteries charged by following these helpful tips from Kelly:
● Make yourself a priority. Caregiving may be the “new normal” for your life at this point, but find the balance, too. Look after yourself by taking occasional breaks from your caregiving role. Seek out agencies and organizations that provide respite care. And don’t forget to ask family members and friends.
● Accept help from others. Often others ask caregivers, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Make a list so you can provide them with specific suggestions.
● Maintain your own health. As a caregiver, you can’t afford to get sick. Get plenty of sleep. Avoid eating junk food, skipping meals or binging. Find ways to exercise; it helps to relieve depression, boost your immunity and focus your attention on yourself and your body. And stay proactive in your own health care by getting regular checkups and immunizations. Doing mind-body activities such as yoga, meditation, prayer and deep breathing can help.
● Communicate with your doctor or therapist about your caregiving role. It is a health risk and should be noted in your personal health record. They can also offer support and suggestions to make sure that you are getting the care you need.
● Reach out for ideas and emotional support. Just about everyone has a caregiving story to tell, an empathetic ear or a helpful suggestion. Consider joining a support group. If you are isolated geographically or because of the time and demands of caregiving, think about joining an online group. And seek out information, organizations and resources concerning your loved one’s condition. An informed caregiver is a less-stressed one.
● Don’t lose your sense of humor. Laughter is a surefire cortisol-reducer. Some of the healthiest caregivers laugh often.
“There are positive aspects to caregiving, such as giving back to someone you love, learning about your own resiliency and capacity to care, getting to know and making a connection to your loved one in a profound way,” says Kelly. “But you also must protect your own physical and mental health—for your sake and the sake of your loved one.”
Hunt agrees. “You can view caregiving as something that you are really doing with the community and you can reach out to the community to get assistance,” she says. “You’re not alone—and that’s really a big deal.”
Jeanette Leardi is an instructor of journaling, memoir-writing, personal mythmaking and storytelling. A longtime freelance writer and editor, her publishing experiences also include staff positions at Newsweek, Life, People and Condé Nast Traveler magazines and The Charlotte Observer.
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