Have you ever been too sick to care for yourself, perhaps with a bad virus or physical injury? The situation may have been frustrating or frightening. Without a doubt, the experience required someone to care for you until you recovered. Once the health problem subsided, I bet you felt a big sense of relief and feelings of gratitude toward the person who stuck with you during the ordeal.
For millions of families around the country, however, this scenario does not capture their daily circumstances. According to the AARP, “more than one in five Americans (21.3%) are caregivers, having provided care to an adult or child with special needs at some point in the last 12 months.” What is a caregiver, what vital role do they play in the lives of others, and what support is available to them?
Caregiving: Formal vs. Informal
There are two types of caregivers: formal and informal. The formal caregiver is usually a paid individual who cares for individuals who are not their family members in places like nursing homes, residential care facilities, and home care visits. The other type of caregiver is called an “informal” caregiver. This type of caregiver is described as an unpaid individual who cares for a loved one’s physical needs.
In “formal” caregiving settings, the care recipient may be surrounded by a team of professionals who specialize in everything from meal planning to healthcare. An informal caregiver is responsible for the exact needs without the benefit of shift changes or weekends off. This inequality of need vs. manpower may put immense pressure on the informal caregiver resulting in increased stress and ultimately something called “caregiver burnout.”
If you are a caregiver, what can you do to protect yourself from an overload of caregiver stress leading to burnout? What can friends and family do to help relieve your stress or burnout?
10 Signs of Caregiver Stress
For some people, the need to become a caregiver is placed on them when they learn that their child has a physical or developmental disability. In other families, the decision comes after a parent begins to exhibit deterioration in their mobility or cognitive health. Whenever this shift takes place, several questions and concerns present themselves. These concerns lead to a heightened stress level that may cause a decline in the caregiver’s physical and mental health. Could you be suffering from caregiver stress? To answer that question, you need to know the signs…
Caregiver Stress: Signs 1-5
- Denial – After your family member receives a devastating diagnosis, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the belief that the person can get better or relearn the physical or mental skills lost creates an added burden.
- Increased Aggravation – Closely linked to denial, anger, or agitation may result from not accepting the care recipient’s declining health. Aggravation is a form of stress manifesting itself. If the emotion goes unchecked, it could present a danger to the caregiver and the person in their care.
- Social Isolation – When the stressors become too oppressive, a caregiver may withdraw from their friends and social engagements.
- Anxiety – A caregiver may experience anxiety when they reflect on the future of the person in their care. The unknown questions that swirl around any type of long-term care situation can pile up and make it difficult to manage situations that may not have previously caused them distress.
- Depression – Unrelenting stress may lead to depression. Feelings like the signs listed above could signal an overarching mental health crisis.
Caregiver Stress: Signs 6-10
- Exhaustion – Informal caregivers are on the job 24/7. The constant activity and need for vigilance may lead to a lack of available energy to perform simple tasks.
- Sleeplessness – Sleep deprivation is a shared burden that all informal caregivers face. A lack of sleep may be linked to anxiety, depression, or the care recipient’s needs.
- Irritability – A prolonged lack of sleep is bound to make anyone irritable over time. Combined with any of the other signs on this list and the caregiver may be signaling they need help even if they haven’t asked for it.
- Lack of Concentration – If the caregiver begins to miss appointments or other things that make them say, “I forgot,” it may be a result of a caregiver’s levels hitting critical mass.
- Health Issues – Our body and mind are our best advocates when it comes to stress overload. They usually signal there is a problem before a caregiver is ready to admit it themselves.
Caregivers accomplish extraordinary things every day, but they are still human. Ignoring the signs of stress could have a severe and long-term impact on a caregiver’s physical and mental health.
What are some of the physical and mental consequences of prolonged, unhealthy stress?
Taking a Physical Toll
The body’s stress-response system activates on a case-by-case basis. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, our heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other systems resume their regular activities.
Unfortunately, caregivers rarely receive a reprieve from their stressors, so the body does not get a chance to recoup. The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This strain puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive Problems
- Weight Gain or Loss
- Heart Disease
- Sleeping Disorders
- Muscle Aches and Pains
The Mental Impact of Too Much Stress
When stressors run out of control, a person’s physical health is not the only part of their being that suffers. A caregiver’s mental health may begin to show signs of excess stress even before the physical symptoms appear. Some of these signs are:
- Memory and Concentration Impairment
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
What Should You Do?
If you or someone you love exhibits any of the signs listed above, do not hesitate to seek help. Self-care is a vital part of a caregiver’s ability to provide quality care for their family member. Ignoring the signs because “there isn’t time to take care of myself” could spell disaster. Once the signs are present, what can be done to alleviate the pressure?
Six Methods for Managing Stress in Caregivers
A caregiver may have few options available to them to change their circumstances, but the situation is not without hope. Here are six steps to help manage stress:
- Assert yourself
- Regularly exercise
- Practice relaxation techniques
- Set realistic goals and expectations
- Eat healthier and drink plenty of water
- Give up nicotine or heavy drinking
Managing Stress in Caregivers: Tip Details
- Eat healthier and drink plenty of water. As an exhausted, time-strapped caregiver, it may be challenging to maintain a healthy diet. Remember that consuming plenty of fruits, veggies, and balanced proteins can increase a body’s ability to manage stress, clear the mental fog, and decreases that sluggish feeling from unhealthy eating.
- Regularly exercise. This tip does not involve taking two hours of “me-time” at the gym. A caregiver’s time is precious and rarely solitary. If you are a caregiver, use the world around you like your gym. When caring for a loved one in a wheelchair, use the barre method to stretch or strengthen your core every time you are standing in line at the pharmacy or while you are waiting for an appointment. If the only time you get to yourself is that precious 10 minutes in the shower, use five of those minutes to stretch and do simple Yoga or Thai Chi poses. No matter how brief, daily activity will protect you from injury and help your body dilute some of those excess chemicals in your body.
- Give up nicotine and heavy drinking. A caregiver’s body is flooded with toxins due to sustained stressors. The presence of nicotine or alcohol worsens these conditions in the body. People who use nicotine often refer to it as a stress reliever. However, nicotine places more pressure on the body by increasing physical arousal and reducing blood flow and breathing. Taking care to reduce these types of substances will truly help reduce caregiver burnout despite the common misconceptions.
- Practice relaxation techniques. During the day, a caregiver can manage their stress by practicing a series of relaxation techniques that help regulate stubborn stress hormones, like cortisol.
- Assert yourself. As a caregiver, it may be difficult to say, “No.” It may also be uncomfortable to ask for help. Setting healthy boundaries is key to avoiding burnout.
- Set realistic goals and expectations. The desire to allow loved ones who needs care the dignity of independence is a common dilemma for caregivers and their family. The commitment to care for that loved one in the home may feel like the “right” decision, but various circumstances may not make that possible. A caregiver must set goals that are reasonable and fact-based.
Combined with aromatherapy, these techniques can help a caregiver manage the stressors associated with their caregiving responsibilities. An added benefit to each of these practices is that they can be done at any time without interrupting a caregiver’s obligations.
- Visualization. Close your eyes and mentally picture a place or situation that is peaceful and calm: the more detail, the better. YouTube has tons of videos to guide you through this process.
- Breathing Exercises. Slow your breathing and focusing on taking deep breaths. Using an app such as Calm or iBreathe can help a caregiver develop these skills.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Try tightening and then relaxing each muscle group, starting at one end of your body, and working your way to the other end. You can find information and instructional videos on the internet to help you perfect this self-care method that you can do just about anywhere.
Have an Escape Plan
If you find yourself in the position of becoming an informal caregiver, here are some questions you should ask to help you avoid burnout.
- Does your family member need occasional support or full-time care?
- Who will serve as the primary caregiver?
- If there are financial needs, who will absorb the cost?
- If the caregiver is sick or unavailable, who in the family will provide support?
- Are there financial or medical documents that need filling out?
- What state or local agencies can provide caregiver support?
- What is the plan if the family member’s health situation becomes worse than before?
Resources for Caregivers
Being a caregiver is a momentous task that requires constant physical and mental energy. To maintain the rigorous pace, they must be allowed to decompress. Two of the resources available to caregivers and their families are respite care facilities and support groups.
Caregiving Support: Respite Care
An essential part of good self-care is called “respite care.” In short, this means that the person in need of care spends the day at an adult daycare center so that the person taking care of them can rejuvenate. All informal caregivers need this type of support. Taking a break is vital to the well-being of both the caregiver and the relative in their care.
Each state has different programs available. Speak to your primary care doctor or specialist to receive more information about the community resources available in your area.
Caregiving Support Groups
A vital part of a caregiver’s self-care arsenal is a thriving support group. In some cases, this role can be filled by friends and family who give a caregiver a safe place to talk about their challenges as a caregiver. In addition to the familiar faces in their lives, caregivers often need the support of people experiencing similar things. In-person and online support groups are crucial to anyone who is a caregiver. Support group members can provide information about other resources, listen to a caregiver’s unique anxieties, and provide practice help when needed. For family caregivers during 2020, support groups were a lifeline in the face of isolation, limited resources, and mounting frustration. If you are the caregiver of a relative or loved one, you are not alone. Find a support group online today!
Caregiving: The Key Is Honesty & Humility
The key to managing avoiding burnout is based in part on our ability to be honest with ourselves and others about acknowledging and accepting what our human limitations are. It may be incredibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that we cannot care for all our relative’s needs or we cannot care for them in our home. Remember, the best way to face these challenges is not to ignore our own needs and desires. A caregiver cannot successfully assist their loved ones if the caregiver is suffering physically or mentally.
Playing Our Part
If you are a friend or relative of a caregiver, there are several things you can do to help your loved one avoid burnout. These simple steps may seem small to us, but they could be a life-saver to a person caring for a loved one.
- Find practical ways to support the caregiver, like providing a meal once a week.
- Help fill out online forms for financial resources or in-home services.
- Identify errands you could help complete, like going to the store or post office.
- Arrange to do household or yard chores.
- Provide or arrange regular respite days.
- Be a good listener.
Don’t Take “NO” for an Answer
Caregivers may fall into the bad habit of thinking they have to do it all themselves. The idea that everything their responsibility may lead to a lot of “no, I don’t need any help” responses. As friends or family members of the individual doing the caregiving, we need to learn not to take “no” for an answer. Caregivers need and deserve our support so don’t give up even if the answer is always “no.”
As a caregiver, if you find yourself saying “no” to support while feeling overwhelmed by the out-of-control to-do list, consider accepting the support of the people around you. If you do not have anyone available, it might help to use a shopping app like Instacart, prescription delivery, or other online tools to cut down on your hectic schedule.
Listen to What Isn’t Said
If you have a caregiver in your life, it is important to watch for the signs of stress or burnout mentioned in this article. Exposure to prolonged stress can have a long-term impact on the caregiver. While friends and family members may not carry the burden of caregiving, their ongoing support is both practical and loving. A caregiver may not ask for help. They may not realize they need help until there is a crisis. The best way to avoid this outcome is to watch for what isn’t being said. The signs are all there – the ability to be proactive and “see-a-need, fill-a-need” is crucial.
Thank Your Heroes!
If you know a caregiver, then you know a hero. Whether they are a formal or informal caregiver, they attend to the well-being of the most vulnerable people in our communities. They often forgo their own physical or emotional needs to care for someone who can’t take care of themselves. If you have a caregiver in your life, take the time to show appreciation for everything they do to help others. Being a caregiver is a complex issue, but the more we can prove to a caregiver that they are not alone, the more equipped they will be to meet the demands placed on them.