As the U.S. population ages, more people are faced with the responsibility of caring for elderly loved ones with Alzheimer's disease, cancer, or other health problems. Many parents are also raising children with severe disabilities at home. More often today, these caregivers are continuing to care for children with disabilities well into their adulthood.
The people needing care often need help with basic daily tasks. Caregivers help with a wide range of activities, including:
- giving medicine
- running errands
People who do not get paid for providing care are known as informal caregivers or family caregivers. Most informal caregivers are women. Often, these women also have children to take care of and jobs outside the home.
Being an informal caregiver can have many rewards. It can give you a feeling of giving back to a loved one. It can make you feel needed and can lead to a stronger relationship with the person receiving care. However, caregiving can also take a toll on your mental and physical health.
What is caregiver stress?
Caregiver stress is the emotional strain of caregiving. It can take many forms. For instance, you may feel frustrated and angry taking care of someone with dementia (dih-MEN-chuh) who often wanders away or becomes easily upset. Or you may feel guilty because you think that you should be able to provide better care, despite all the other things that you have to do.
How can I tell if caregiving is putting too much stress on me?
Caregiving may be putting too much strain on you if you have any of the following symptoms:
- sleeping too much or too little
- gain or loss of a lot of weight
- feeling tired most of the time
- loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- becoming easily irritated or angered
- often feeling sad
- frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems
- abuse of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs
Talk to a counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional right away if your stress leads you to physically or emotionally harm the person you are caring for.
How can caregiver stress affect my health?
Research shows that, compared with noncaregivers, caregivers:
- are more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety
- are more likely to have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis
- have a weaker immune response, which can lead to frequent infections and increased risk of cancers
- have higher levels of obesity
- may be at higher risk of mental decline, including problems with memory and paying attention
What can I do to prevent or relieve stress?
First, never dismiss your feelings as "just stress." Caregiver stress can lead to serious health problems and you should take steps to reduce it as much as you can. Tips for reducing caregiver stress:
- Ask for and accept help.
- Say "no" to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals.
- Stay in touch with family and friends.
- Join a caregiver support group.
- Attend a class to learn how to take care of someone with the disease that your loved one has.
- Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine.
- Set realistic goals for each day.
- Get an annual medical checkup.
- Stay active, eat a healthy diet, and try to get enough sleep.
What caregiving services can I find in my community?
Caregiving services include:
- meal delivery
- home health care services (such as nursing or physical therapy)
- nonmedical home care services (such as housekeeping or cooking)
- home modification (changes to the home that make it easier for your loved one to perform basic daily tasks, such as bathing, using the toilet, and moving around)
- legal and financial counseling
What can I do if I need a break?
Taking some time off from caregiving can reduce stress. "Respite care" provides substitute caregiving to give the regular caregiver a much-needed break. Respite care may be provided by:
- home health care workers
- adult day-care centers
- short-term nursing homes
How do I find out about caregiving services in my community?
Contact your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) to learn about caregiving services where you live. AAAs are usually listed in the city or county government sections of the telephone directory under "Aging" or "Health and Human Services." The National Eldercare Locator, a service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, can also help you find your local AAA.
Family Caregiver Alliance
Adapted from The Healthy Woman: A Complete Guide for All Ages
Chapter on Mental Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health 2008
Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 31, 2014