Providing care for an aging loved one can be a rewarding experience with benefits for both the caregiver and the care receiver. The feeling of being needed and knowing that you are making someone happier and more comfortable in their later years leads to greater intimacy and a feeling of purpose.
However, when caregivers put so much effort into caregiving duties that they begin to neglect their own well-being, their physical, emotional and mental health can begin to suffer. Caregiver stress syndrome occurs when caregivers report that providing care to an individual has led to more anxiety, depression, health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes, a compromised immune system, and even an increase in the use of drugs or alcohol.
Research shows that during any given year, more than 44 million Americans have provided unpaid care to elderly loved ones or a disabled adult. Of these caregivers, as many as one in three will report their stress levels as high, and that they are losing out on time spent doing things they enjoy.
The signs of caregiver stress should not be ignored, as negative stress can not only harm your health but make you a less effective caregiver, too. Some of the most common signs a caregiver is dealing with too much stress include:
Changes in energy levels or mood. Caregiver stress can lead to changes in your personality, energy and mood. You might always feel tired and run down, or become irritable at the smallest issue or change in routine.
Trouble sleeping. Oftentimes, caregivers face problems with sleeping due to dealing with their loved one’s own sleep issues, like those with Sundowner’s Syndrome.
Weight gain or loss. Stress puts our bodies in what is called “scarcity mode”, which means it will hang on to fat as a protective measure of energy reserves in case of an emergency. Plus, many caregivers will use eating as an emotional outlet and have little time to exercise. Of course, stress and lack of time to eat can also lead to weight loss.
Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed. Caregivers will often find that they no longer are interested in the activities they used to enjoy, whether it’s due to lack of time or energy.
Social isolation. Caregivers become so immersed in their caregiving duties that they may neglect relationships they have with others. This easily can lead to social isolation, which increases the risk for depression.
All of these signs can lead to caregiver burnout and a variety of physical complications on your health. Caregivers often become so immersed in their duties that they fail to realize their own health is suffering or that they’ve developed chronic conditions. It can also be difficult for a caregiver to admit they need help with their responsibilities, which means they won’t seek caregiver support of any kind.
However, it’s vital that you pay attention to the signs of caregiver stress syndrome and attend to your own needs on a regular basis. Some of the ways you can avoid caregiver burnout include:
Put yourself first. This can be difficult for a caregiver who is used to caring for elderly parents, but it’s important to put your own needs ahead of the care receiver’s from time to time. Make time to exercise, visit with friends, and get the sleep you need.
Join a caregiver support group. A caregiver support group provides the chance for you to let off steam and share common experiences with others. You’ll learn coping strategies, form new friendships, and can even help others in the support group.
Look into respite care services. Respite care provides caregivers a needed break from their caregiving duties, whether it’s for a day or two or the longer term. You’ll be confident knowing your loved one is in a safe environment and being well cared for while you have the time to attend to your own needs, whether it’s simply running errands, visiting the doctor, or taking a vacation.
Ask others for help. Caregivers often think they can do it all, but in truth, depending on others from time to time is important. Make lists of tasks and recruit others to pitch in as needed.