Reviewed by: Holly Cross, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, ACHPN
Written by: Lauryn Gerard
A parent, a grandparent, a child, a partner, a brother, a sister, a best friend–when you look at the people around you, you likely reflect on the joy they bring to your life, the impact they’ve had on your happiness, the ways in which they have been there for you, or the many things they have done for you. And, when health problems arise for those you love, it can be difficult not to drop everything to provide the support they need while they battle whatever condition is affecting them. Whether it’s you that takes on this caregiving role or another family member, it’s important to understand the reality in which caregiving can be both rewarding and stressful at the same time. Recognizing that caregivers also need support is critical to maintaining optimal health so that caregivers can continue to adequately care for loved ones.
Who is a caregiver?
A caregiver is anyone who provides care and support to a person who may find it difficult to carry out activities of daily living on their own. Approximately 1 in 3 adults in the United States provide care to loved ones, such as an aging relative, disabled child, or an ill spouse or family member, as informal caregivers. Caregivers are often driven by their deep-rooted compassion and desire to help those they care about. But all too often, caregivers neglect their own self-care, leaving them physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
As a caregiver, you likely feel grateful you are able to ease the burdens of your loved one to make their life a little easier; however, it is normal to also feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and time you dedicate to supporting your loved one. The emotional and physical stress brought on by caregiving is common and expected. Feeling angry, frustrated, exhausted, sad, and alone at times is natural, so don’t hold it against yourself or others. Caregivers often sacrifice their personal wellness to devote their attention and efforts toward caring for their loved ones, which can potentially harm their health.
Because they are so dedicated and focused on the care of their loved ones, caregivers may not notice that their own health is beginning to decline. As a caregiver, you’re more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. You may also experience lack of sleep, physical activity, or a nutritious diet, all of which can increase your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease or diabetes. It is important for both you and the individual you are caring for that you take care of yourself first. Maintaining a sense of self and taking time to focus on your health will help you not only feel good about what you’re doing, but also provide high-quality care to your loved one in need.
Caregiver Stress Warning Signs
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Experiencing frequent headaches or other physical symptoms
- Feeling tired often but having trouble sleeping
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Unintentionally gaining or losing weight
If your caregiving duties are interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, you need to take a step back to manage your health and stress. Reevaluate your workload and don’t hesitate to ask for help. There are resources and tools available to help you better navigate your own health while providing care to your loved one. Leveraging these resources can help ensure you are not inundated with caregiver burden.
Tips for Managing Caregiver Stress
- Reach out to family, friends, or a professional caregiving service. If you have other family members or friends that are able and willing to help, be transparent with them about what tasks they can assume to help lessen the burden on you. Also, exploring short-term or long-term care services may be in the best interest of you and the individual you are caring for depending on the severity of the condition.
- Set personal health goals for yourself. If you are an avid gym goer or love to cook fresh meals but your caregiver duties have interfered with your normal routine, set a goal to try to get back to those healthy habits beginning with one day per week. Try to carve out time to take a yoga class, go for a walk, or engage in another form of physical activity—the point is to focus on doing something to keep you active and healthy!
- Connect with others. Whether you decide to join a support group, meet up with a friend, or reach out to your local church, connecting with others and sharing your struggles can help reduce anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Never underestimate the power of talking to people who understand and can support you.
- Get enough sleep! Sleep deprivation can lead to exhaustion, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems. If your caregiver role causes interrupted sleep, consider asking a family member, friend, neighbor, or member of your faith community to step in for a night so that you can rest and restore your energy.
- Find time to relax. Caregivers spend upwards of 20 hours per week taking care of their loved ones. That’s 20 hours of your time that may have been otherwise spent engaging in hobbies, hanging out with family, traveling, or participating in other relaxing activities. Try not to lose sight of what brings you joy, and if it means spending a little less time with your care recipient to restore your health and happiness, that’s ok, you are allowed to enjoy life, too.
- Visit your doctor. If you have been overburdening yourself for a while and recently noticed that your health has declined, please visit your doctor. Talk to them about your workload and stress levels; your doctor will be able to help determine what actions need to be taken or what medications should be prescribed to keep you healthy while you continue to care for your loved one.
UT Health Austin’s Comprehensive Memory Center offers caregivers caring for a loved one with a dementia diagnosis a variety of support services, including behavior management guidance and mental and behavioral health services to address concerns of daily living, worsening behavioral symptoms, changes in mood, sleep impairment, and other challenges. Additionally, the team provides education and guidance pertaining to community resources, long-term care planning and, more. For more information, visit here.
Not every aspect of caregiving is burdensome as you and your care recipient will likely experience a unique bond while spending this additional time together. These times can provide loving experiences and long-lasting memories. And by taking care of your own health, you’ll experience an increase in the mental and physical strength needed to confidently continue with your responsibilities as a caregiver. Remember you must first care for yourself before you can care for anyone else.
Additional resources and support for caregivers can be found through the following organizations:
- Eldercare Locator
- Family Caregiver Alliance
- Texas Health and Human Services - Area Agencies on Aging (AAA)
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Caregiver Resources