Managing Caregiver Stress

Family caregivers — those people who are caring for an aging or chronically ill loved one — often face a lot of stress. Caregiving can be a fairly invisible and underappreciated role. The estimated price tag for informal caregiving in the U.S. is a staggering $522 billion a year, according to a RAND Corporation study.

The study estimates that, as a group, family caregivers provide 30 billion hours of unpaid care every year. That’s a lot of time. And it’s work that can be both physically and emotionally taxing.

It can be financially taxing too. Caregivers are often trying to balance their role as a caregiver with their role as an employee. The RAND study estimates that  “Three out of five caregivers also are in the labor force. Working-age people under age 65 provide 22 billion of those 30 billion caregiving hours, and they often lose income due to reduced work hours.”

It’s critical that people who are caring for a loved one know how to take care of themselves. Caregiver burnout is common, and the cost of stress in terms of the caregiver’s own health can be high. It’s important that family caregivers recognize the signs of stress and be ready to reach out for help.

Signs of Caregiver Stress

Symptoms of caregiver stress include:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Overreacting, or feeling irritable and anxious
  • Feeling numb, as though nothing you do matters
  • New or worsening health problems
  • Drinking, smoking, or eating poorly

Stress can progress to burnout, as in the case of a 62-year-old woman who played a caregiving role for three elderly male relatives. She was a caregiver for her husband with frontotemporal dementia, served as Power of Attorney for her nursing home bound brother-in-law, and was the designated contact person for her out-of-state father in assisted living. She also worked full-time.

Because she was stressed, stretched too thin and sleep-deprived, she found herself continuously catching a cold or the flu. She eventually developed shingles. This made it hard for her to provide care for her loved ones.

Caring for the Caregiver

It’s vital that caregivers find ways to care of themselves so they can provide the best care to their loved ones, as well as be able to enjoy their own lives. This is why airline emergency instructions tell passengers traveling with young children, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”  It’s the same principle. You can’t be there to take good care of someone else unless you take care of yourself first.

Here are eight strategies for dealing with caregiver stress in order to avoid burnout:

  1. Ask for help. Let family and friends know when you need a break. It might be something as simple as having them stay with your loved one while you catch up on errands or take a walk. Be willing to speak up, and to say “yes” when someone offers help.
  2. Get good quality sleep. We all require different amounts of sleep. Whether you function best on six hours or eight, restorative sleep will go a long way toward enhancing your outlook, helping to maintain your health and reduce stress.
  3. Seek support. Everyone needs a support system, A caregiver support group can provide validation and encouragement for what you’re experiencing, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. You can find a list of local, metro Detroit support groups on our website.
  4. Set personal goals. Do you yearn to take up pottery, go back to school for further training, or eat healthier? Maybe just take a little time for yourself? Set a specific goal, then break it down into manageable steps and get started.
  5. Exercise! From walking to swimming to gardening, cycling to tennis to dancing, physical exercise is one of the best antidotes to stress. If you’re having trouble dedicating a big chunk of time to exercise, don’t worry. Even 10-minutes at a time can have an impact and improve your outlook.
  6. Prioritize self-care. Whether it’s a massage or a manicure, or dinner out with a friend, self-care means doing something just for you that brings you joy.
  7. Relax about outcomes. Allow yourself to relinquish control. You’re doing the best you can as a caregiver. You can’t control everything about your caregiving situation, but you can control how you respond day-to-day to whatever issues arise.
  8. Appreciate yourself. Caregiving can sometimes be a thankless role. Even if your loved one is not able to express appreciation for your efforts (due to dementia or chronic pain, for example), know that you are making a difference in this person’s life. Applaud your efforts and commitment.

Powerful Tools for Caregivers

AgeWays offers Powerful Tools for Caregivers, an educational program designed to help family caregivers in southeast Michigan and Metro Detroit take care of themselves while caring for an aging or disabled relative or friend. It doesn’t matter what your situation is — whether you’re caring for someone who lives with you, lives in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, or if you’re a long-distance caregiver.

Classes meet once a week for six weeks. Each class is 90 minutes long, and kept small, with just 8 to 12 participants. The small class size helps group members get to know and learn from one another.

You’ll learn practical tools you can begin using right away to:

  • Reduce stress and take good care of yourself
  • Communicate your feelings, needs, and concerns
  • Handle challenging situations
  • Make tough decisions

Topics covered include:

  • Hiring in-home assistance
  • Helping memory-impaired loved ones
  • Making legal and financial decisions
  • Making decisions about placing loved ones in a care facility
  • Understanding depression