Even for family members, providing an appropriate level of care for an elderly adult is a highly taxing and stressful responsibility, not even considering the cases of seniors with severe mental and behavioral disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. While it is quite admirable that many individuals devote such passion and time to caring for their loved ones, they all too often neglect the impact this has on their own health and well-being. This blog post will look at the often mentioned term, caregiver burden, and discuss a few techniques caregivers can employ to reduce their stress and frustration.
Caregiver burden is an umbrella term that refers to the combination of emotional, physical, and financial stress created by providing care. The formal definition of this term is generally measured by the Zarit Burden Interview which asks individuals to rate how they feel regarding various questions such as “Do you feel your relative asks for more help than he/she needs?” or “Do you feel angry when you are around your relative?” In any case, no scale can truly give an accurate depiction of such a complicated and unique emotional situation. However, we do know with certainty that there are various consequences to high levels of perceived caregiver burden. Some of the well documented health issues seen include depression, anxiety, increased psychotropic drug use, and increased risk of mortality.
Here are some strategies that may help caregivers cope with feelings of stress and stave off the negative health effects of long-term caregiving:
1. Knowledge: This is perhaps the most important and effective tool for a caregiver. A thorough and accurate understanding of the disease affecting one’s family member can give the caregiver a much better sense of the difficulties faced by the individual and from this sense, a much clearer picture of what is under their control and what is not.
2. Personal Time: Just as many find it helpful to separate their home and work lives; it is generally advised that all caregivers set aside time for their own personal needs and activities. Whether this means hiring a professional caregiver for one day a week or recruiting help from friends or local organizations, having this brief separation generally proves beneficial for all parties.
3. Vigilance: It is often reported that caregivers suffer from an abnormally high rate of depression. Knowing and watching out for the common symptoms of depression (feelings of worthlessness, physical and mental exhaustion) can help at-risk individuals seek and receive treatment as soon as possible.
4. Lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help buffer individuals against the stress created by caregiving. This includes, but is certainly not limited to: eating a balanced diet, performing regular exercise, and keeping normal sleep cycles.
In short, to all caregivers out there, remember that your health is of vital importance not only to the loved one you take care of, but to the rest of your family. Make sure you take care of yourself!
Note: In this post, I generally consider the case of caregivers who are related to the individual in need. However, most of what is stated here can also apply to professional caregivers, who may also suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety.
Parks SM, Novielli KD, 2000. A Practical Guide to Caring for Caregivers. Am Fam Physician 62(12): 2613-2620.