A caregiver is someone who gives basic care to a person who has a chronic medical or intellectual condition. A chronic condition is one that lasts for a long time or never goes away. Some examples of chronic conditions include:
- Children with special needs (cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism)
- Effects of stroke
- Multiple sclerosis
- Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
- Mental health conditions
Caregivers help with many tasks. These include shopping, preparing and eating food, cleaning, taking medicine, bathing, and dressing. Caregivers also provide company and emotional support.
Some caregivers are paid. Many are friends or family members of the person who needs care. Providing care for a loved one can be rewarding. But it can also be very challenging.
Why is caregiving challenging?
Caring for a loved one who is seriously ill is never easy. You are often “on call” most of the time. It makes it hard to juggle the other parts of your life. This could include work, chores, caring for children, and caring for the person who is sick. You may feel like you don’t have any free time.
Caregiving is also hard because you often see many changes in your loved one:
- The person you’re caring for may not know you anymore.
- He or she may be too ill to talk or follow simple requests.
- He or she may have behavior problems, like yelling, hitting, or wandering away from home. This may be especially true if the person you’re caring for suffers from dementia.
You may have a hard time thinking of the person in the same way that you did before he or she became ill.
Is it normal to have many different feelings about being a caregiver?
Yes. At times, you may feel scared, sad, lonely, or unappreciated. You may feel angry and frustrated. You may feel guilty or feel that life isn’t fair. You may feel resentful of the person you are caring for. All of these feelings are normal.
As a caregiver, am I at risk for health problems?
Yes. Because being a caregiver is so hard, your health can suffer. You may feel stressed or overwhelmed by being a caregiver. You may find that you spend much of your time caring for others but neglect your own health.
Some of the tasks of being a caregiver can put extra strain on your body. This could include lifting or bathing your loved one. Being a caregiver also can cause financial stress. You may avoid going to the doctor so you don’t have to pay for visits or treatments. Or you might not have time to go to the doctor when you need to. You may see an increase in depression, anxiety or difficulty sleeping dur to the increased stress on your mental health. All of these things can affect your emotional, mental, and physical health.
Studies show that caregivers have an increased risk for the following health problems:
- Alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse
- Anxiety disorders
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart attack
- Pain, such as muscle or joint pain, or headaches
- Stress and depression
How can I tell if caregiving is putting too much stress on me?
It’s normal to have a lot of conflicting feelings. It’s not normal for these feelings to last for a long time or to disrupt your life. Being a caregiver is hard. Some doctors think of caregivers as “hidden patients.” Studies show that caregivers are much more likely than non-caregivers to suffer from health problems.
Path to improved well being
It is important to take care of yourself while you are taking care of your loved one. This will help prevent stress overload or depression. The following suggestions can help you invest in your own wellness.
Take care of your health
You may feel like you have to “do it all,” regardless of the toll it takes on you. But you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself. Make wellness a priority by:
- Avoiding alcohol and tobacco. You may think they help in the short-term, but they can affect your sleep and cause health problems if you use them regularly.
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet. Your body needs nourishing food that will give you energy.
- Exercising regularly. Thirty to 60 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week can give you more energy, reduce stress, and improve your mood.
- Getting plenty of sleep. Your body needs to recover physically and mentally every night. If you’re short on sleep, try to take naps when your loved one does.
- Managing stress. Stress affects your mental, emotional, and physical health. Learn ways to manage it so it doesn’t take over your life.
Visit your doctor for regular check-ups
Get regular check-ups, even if you don’t feel sick. Your doctor can help you stay healthy by providing preventive services. These include health tests, screenings, and vaccinations. They can give you advice appropriate for your age, sex, and medical and family history. These services help prevent disease and will help catch any medical conditions you do have early.
Educate yourself about your loved one’s medical condition
Find out all you can about the condition your loved one has, the treatment he or she is going through, and its side effects. Being informed can give you a sense of control. Your loved one’s doctor, support groups, the internet, and libraries are good resources for more information.
Caregiving is often a full-time job. But you may be doing it on top of other responsibilities.
These could include a paid job or taking care of your children. Make a schedule with your family. This will help all of you stay organized and will help you manage the demands on your time. Don’t forget to schedule time for things you enjoy. These could include visiting with friends or going out to dinner or a movie.
Take a break
Accept that there is a limit to what you can do. If you are getting burned out or overwhelmed, have a plan. Keep a list of people who are willing to help. This list might include family members, friends, or temporary care workers. Reach out for help if you need it.
Talk to your family doctor
If you are overwhelmed, talk to your doctor. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about how you’re feeling. Tell your doctor about all of your symptoms. He or she can recommend coping methods, support groups, counseling, or medicine to help you feel better.
Talk to your loved one and your family
You may feel that you shouldn’t burden people with your feelings because you’re not the one who is sick. However, talking about the illness and how you feel can help relieve stress. Talk with your loved one, other family members, or friends who can provide support.
Look for help in your community
Community services provide different kinds of help. These include meal delivery, transportation, and legal or financial counseling. They also include home health care services such as physical therapy, nursing, or respite care for you. You can check your church or synagogue for services or volunteers who can help you. You can also ask for help from support organizations or join an online community.
Many local, county, or state governments have agencies on aging. They can help you locate programs and services in your area. The U.S. Administration on Aging offers information on area agencies and other services. This can be found through its online Eldercare Locator tool.
Join a support group
Support groups allow you to share your feelings and experiences with other people going
through similar situations. Your doctor can suggest local support groups. Social media is a resource as well. Online tools, forums, and mobile apps are available to connect you with people in a similar situation.
Recognizing that you need help takes strength and courage. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with a counselor about how you’re feeling. Your doctor can refer you to a therapist who specializes in the kind of counseling you need
Things to consider
Sometimes the stress of caregiving for a loved one becomes overwhelming. This can lead to stress overload and even depression. Watch for these signs:
Signs of stress overload
- Feeling overwhelmed or helpless
- Anxiety or irritability
- Excessive anger toward the person you care for, your family, or yourself
- Health problems (heartburn, headaches, or catching a series of colds or flu)
- Sleep problems (sleeping too much or not enough)
- Social withdrawal
- Unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol
Signs of depression
- Change in appetite, unintended weight loss or gain
- Crying easily or for no reason
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or helpless
- Feeling slowed down, restless, or irritable
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Headaches, backaches, or digestive problems
- Loss of interest in sex
- No interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
- Sleep problems (sleeping too much or not enough)
- Trouble recalling things, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts about death or suicide
If you think you are suffering from stress overload or depression, call your family doctor. He or she can help you manage your feelings and stress. This could be through stress management techniques, counseling, or medicine.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What can I do to prevent stress overload?
- Are there ways I can take a break from caregiving?
- What signs should I look for that I’m doing too much?
- Can this stress cause physical symptoms?
- Would a support group help me?
- Do I need medicine to be able to cope with the stress of caregiving?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.