Caregiving is a selfless and loving act. But it can also be a source of intense stress. When this stress is ignored or improperly addressed, it can cause strains on your own health. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found that caregivers have a 63% higher mortality rate when compared to people their age who are non-caregivers. Unfortunately, the consequences of chronically increased levels of stress extend beyond the caregivers to the people they are caring for.
There’s a reason that the first rule of caregiving is, “You cannot care for others unless you first care for yourself.” When you’re running on empty, you’re not yourself—you can’t think clearly, your reaction times are slowed, and you’re more prone to making preventable mistakes. This can leak into your care for your loved one and lead to a decrease in their quality of care and overall quality of life.
Often, the two main causes of caregiver stress are lack of resources and lack of self-care. We’ve pulled together our most relevant and helpful information on family caregiver support and how to deal with the stress of caring for elderly parents as a place to start. If you ever need more information or you’re interested in joining one of our family caregiver support groups, contact your local Area Agency on Aging.
The Signs of Caregiver Stress
Everyone copes with stress in different ways, but there are some general signs to watch out for if you are worried that you or a loved one are suffering from caregiver burnout. If you notice any, or several, of these symptoms, reach out for help. Talk to family, friends, and utilize the resources available to you through your local Area Agency on Aging. All of our facilities offer caregiver support in some form or fashion.
If you are losing sleep playing out worst-case scenarios in your mind, you find yourself pushing thoughts of the future to the back burner, or you always feel like you’re running out of time, you may be suffering from anxiety. From low-level uneasiness to full-blown panic attacks, anxiety can cripple your ability to fully function in your day-to-day life.
Anger and Resentment
Caring for an ill or disabled loved one can create a lot of complex and conflicting emotions. Love and selflessness often compete with grief, anger, and resentment. And often, guilt and shame for having those feelings aren’t far behind. You may find yourself losing your temper, becoming frustrated more easily, lashing out at your loved ones, or having angry thoughts about other family members for not stepping in to help. You may even find yourself feeling resentful of your parent(s) for needing care in the first place.
Change in Eating Habits
If you are experiencing appetite loss, emotional overeating, or sudden weight gain or loss, you may be suffering from high levels of stress. Left unchecked, these eating habits can lead to eating disorders, diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, and other health issues.
When your thoughts are overwhelmed by your loved one and the tasks you need to complete for them, it can lead to a lack of concentration in other areas of your life. It’s difficult to concentrate when your mind is always focusing on another person and their well-being.
Feelings of numbness or sadness, feelings of hopelessness, overwhelming guilt, a loss of interest in your everyday activities and things you used to enjoy, sleeping for long periods of time, and bouts of crying are all indicators of depression.
Exhaustion and/or Insomnia
If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning no matter how long you slept, or you find that your mental functions are being affected by tiredness, this can be a sign of stress-induced exhaustion. If you’re having repeated or chronic trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you may be suffering from insomnia.
As your stress levels increase, you may find that you are smoking or drinking more often. Or you may find yourself thinking about trying substances you never would have considered in the past, like painkillers or sleeping pills to help you sleep, or uppers to help you stay awake and alert during the day. If you are struggling with substance abuse or thoughts of substance abuse, seek counsel from a trusted source, preferably a mental health professional.
How to Deal with the Stress of Caring for Elderly Parents
There are many resources and options for those suffering from caregiver stress and burnout. The most important thing to remember is that you do not have to do this alone. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see what local resources and programs are available for you and your loved one.
Respite care is meant to give caregivers the time they need to tend to their own lives, families, and personal needs. When you sign up for respite care, a trained homecare aide will watch your loved one for a specific amount of time. You can use respite care for a few hours while you run errands or take a nap, or you can use respite care for a few days while you go out of town, attend an event, or take care of your own home.
Depending on your loved one’s age and circumstances, you may be able to apply for a set number of hours of Medicare- or Medicaid-covered respite care. Private insurance (such as long-term care) sometimes covers respite care as well. Talk to an information and Assistance Specialist about your options and what relief funding you may qualify for.
Taking time for yourself allows you to rest and relax and come back recharged and ready to help your loved one again. Self-care is the best way to fight off resentment, depression, and all the other symptoms of caregiver burnout.
Find Family Caregiver Support
There are many community, local, and government programs aimed at caregiver support. Most of our Area Agencies on Aging offer caregiver support groups and many of them offer respite care while you are attending the support group. Discussing your fears and challenges with people who are going through the exact same thing helps to normalize your situation and make you feel less alone.
There are also several Agencies that provide caregiver support grants. These grants offer respite care for caregivers of seniors. They are also sometimes available to help you pay for the respite care your loved one requires so you can take a much-needed break.
Go for walks, eat healthily, try to get as much sleep as possible, and—most importantly—ask for help. It takes a village to care for anyone, and you are not meant to go through this alone. Ask family members to help balance the burden in any way they can. If that’s not enough, consider hiring outside help.
And remember, there will come a time when no one person will be able to care for your loved one alone. You cannot be awake and available 24 hours a day—it’s just not humanly possible. Start building your support network and your care plan now to save yourself a lot of trouble and grief later on.
If you have questions about how to deal with the stress of caring for elderly parents or about what senior citizen programs are available in your area, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. Our mission is to supply the senior citizens of Arkansas and their caregivers with all the information and resources they need to remain healthy and independent for as long as possible.