by Carol Neeley

Caring for a loved one who is going through a serious illness can be a rewarding experience in many ways. Caregivers often enjoy giving back to someone who once cared for them, with many saying that the experience increases meaning and purpose in life. A survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 83 percent of caregivers viewed the experience as positive.

At the same time, caregiving can be a very stressful experience, and over time that stress can lead to health problems in the caregiver themself. In a 2009 study, researchers reported that caregiving “has all the features of a chronic stress experience,” noting that it creates physical and psychological strain over long periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability and has the capacity to create secondary stresses in other areas of life, including work and family relationships.

Though the caregiving experience can be a meaningful one, it’s critical that caregivers realize the importance of self-care to avoid putting their own health at risk.

Researchers have identified certain aspects about caregiving that illustrate the importance of self-care.

  1. Caregiving is stressful.
    Even if a person enjoys caregiving, it is often stressful, as it involves long hours on top of the hours already spent at work and on other daily activities. Common household chores can become more time-consuming as caregivers assume increased responsibility for cooking, cleaning, bathing, etc. If a patient suffers from side effects or complications, or if treatments are difficult, caregivers experience emotional stress as they try to make life easier for their loved ones.
  2. Caregiving is physically demanding.
    Families are usually the primary source of home care and support for older relatives, which can sometimes be physically challenging. A senior woman may be the primary caretaker for her ill senior husband and suddenly be faced with the difficulty of helping him up out of his chair or out of bed, helping him bathe or otherwise engaging in lifting and pulling activities that may be challenging for her. Long hours, extra duties and sleep disruption can all cause symptoms like fatigue, headaches, body aches and more, with increased risk for injury and illness.
  3. Caregiving is emotionally demanding.
    Caregiving is emotionally challenging, not only because of the inevitable worry and concern for the patient, but because of the frequent changes that can occur that upset the normal routine of life. One of the greatest challenges is going from the hospital setting to the home setting and back, particularly if caregivers don’t get the support and information they need from healthcare providers. If the patient’s illness creates behavioral changes, the challenges can be even greater, as typically caregivers are not equipped to manage these changes, and can suffer their own emotional wounds in response to the patient’s actions.
  4. Caregiving can make it harder to manage personal wellbeing.
    A survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 39 percent of caregivers have a health condition, physical limitation or mental illness of their own that affects their daily lives. In this group, 40 percent said caregiving made it harder for them to manage their own health. If the caregiving itself leads to health challenges in the caregiver—which is possible, according to research—the caregiver may neglect these challenges in an effort to continue caring for the patient, to the detriment of their own well-being. In one study, elderly spouses who experienced stressful caregiving demands had a 63 percent higher mortality rate than others their age who weren’t caregivers.
  5. Caregiving can cause financial strain.
    The survey noted above also found that eight in ten caregivers paid for costs associated with caregiving out of their own pockets, with 13 percent spending up to $500/month on these expenses. One-quarter reduced how much they saved for their own retirement as a result. National surveys also show that many family caregivers of older adults report financial strain.

Signs that caregiving may be causing stress and strain include:

» Feeling isolated or alone
» Feeling overwhelmed
» Sleep disturbances
» Unplanned weight gain or loss
» Feeling irritable or easily angered
» Increased frequency of headaches and/or body aches
» Chronic fatigue

Those who notice these and other signs of caregiver stress should seek out assistance from local hospitals, medical care centers, support groups, meal delivery agencies, homecare services and adult daycare services. For more assistance, call your local Area Agency on Aging.