Caregivers are those people who provide assistance to other people who are unable to perform certain activities on their own because of a physical disability or chronic illness. Formal care can be obtained at home, or from institutions such as nursing homes, and is offered by trained, paid or volunteer professional caregivers. However, informal care, which is usually offered by family members or friends, often in a home setting, is becoming increasingly common. These caregivers are normally inexperienced, untrained, and otherwise lacking the education necessary to maintain their own good health under the stressful conditions they face.
Informal caregiving can have significant effects on the mental and physical health of the caregiver, and this will continue to become an increasing social problem in the United States as the population ages and the number of people requiring care outpaces the availability and affordability of professional care. Therefore, it is important to address the warning signs of caregiver stress, the potential health consequences and the ways in which the stress can be managed. Informal caregiving is becoming an increasingly standard function of many American families.
It is estimated that there are 29. 2 million family caregivers in the United States, and about a quarter of them are caring for an aging parent. (McLeod) One of the common unintentional, harmful effects that is a reality in informal caregiving is that there is the potential for the “illness or disability or injury of the one (being cared for to) become such a focus it almost replaces the rest of their identity”. (Article 8) The same kind of thinking can also be used to explain the health risks that the caregivers themselves face. Caregiving can be very stressful, time consuming and demanding.
Informal caregiving, which is usually a healthy spouse, child or parent living with the disabled person at home, can be a 24 hour, 7 day a week responsibility. It can consume all of their free time, and therefore the caregiver could potentially lose their own identity, and become unable to recognize the warning signs of their own health deterioration as a result of their commitment to caregiving. These caregivers, as part of losing their own identity, may be putting there own needs behind the needs of the person they are caring for.
The result of this is that many of the warning signs that the caregiver is risking their own health are either overlooked, or attributed to being overwhelmed or tired from the extensive amount of time and energy that is required in caregiving. It is important for caregivers to educate themselves about the signs or symptoms of caregiver stress so that they can be sure to maintain their own good health. This is the only way to continue to be able to care for their loved one, as well as to help prevent a medical situation in which they could eventually require full time care themselves.
The warning signs of caregiver stress vary from person to person, but doctors and psychologists have formulated general symptoms that people should pay attention to. At risk caregivers may exhibit denial about the disease or its severity, anger at the person with the disease, an inability to concentrate and severe irritability. Other psychological conditions could include depression and anxiety, dulled emotions and frequent memory lapses. They might be quick to cry or get angry, or have the consistent feeling that they simply can not cope anymore.
Physical symptoms could include chronic fatigue, headaches, stomach aches and sleeping difficulties. Caregivers might even notice that they are catching colds more often than normal, or that they are experiencing an increase in their smoking, drinking or drug use. About 30% of caregivers use psychotropic drugs, such as sleep-aids, compared to only 20% of non-caregivers. (AlzheimerSolutions) Caregivers should also recognize warning signs in other aspects of their life as well. In their social life they may feel isolation or withdrawal from their friends, or be less interested in activities or events they usually enjoy.
Another signal may be reduced effectiveness at their job, or in their other family responsibilities other than the caregiving. (McLeod, Maritato) Doctors and psychologists agree that if a caregiver experiences several of these symptoms, that they should consider themselves at-risk for medical complications themselves, and realize that their ability as a caregiver may become compromised. The importance for caregivers to recognize these symptoms and make the necessary lifestyle changes can not be understated.
It is especially important for elderly caregivers, most of whom are caring for their spouse. It has been shown that a caregiving spouse between the ages of 66 and 96 who experience some type of emotional or mental strain have a 63% greater chance of dying than those in the same age group that are not caregivers. (Caregiver. org) But it is not just the elderly that develop serious medical problems related to their caregiving responsibilities. Caregiving related stress can have a severe impact on the immune system, which in turn has a direct influence on our overall health.
Even wound healing is affected by the stress associated with caregiving because of the impact on the immune system. One study shows that wounds, such as cuts, take 24% longer to heal in Alzheimer caregivers than in non-caregivers. (AlzheimerSolutions) A weak immune system will also result in an increased rate of infections and serious illnesses. Therefore, caregivers are at an increased risk of contracting common colds and the flu, as well as more serious, chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
(O’Brien) Research has shown that 51% of caregivers with significant responsibilities have sleep difficulties. (O’Brien) Lack of sleep can result in decreased effectiveness at work and at home, as well as impairing the ability to be a functioning caregiver. This symptom of caregiving can also have severe health consequences. There is increased research that shows a direct relationship between sleep deprivation and a heightened risk of many major illnesses, including heart disease and obesity.
(O’Brien) Finally, it has been proven that the stress associated with caregiving can actually shorten a person’s life if they don’t pay attention to the warning signs and maintain their own good health. This is not something that only the elderly needs to consider, because caregiving stress can affect the physiology of all caregivers. It has been shown that chronic stress can “accelerate the effects of aging by actually shortening cell life, (because) it leads to weakened muscles, skin wrinkles and even organ failure”.
These studies found that this type of chronic stress can potentially shorten a caregivers life by as much as ten years. (O’Brien) In order to prevent these serious medical conditions, caregivers must not only watch out for their personal warning signs, but also find ways to manage the stress of caregiving. Most importantly, caregivers need to take care of their own health. This includes regular exercise, eating nutritious meals, and maintaining regular sleep patterns. Regular medical checkups are also essential, especially if the caregiver is experiencing some of the warning
signs mentioned earlier. Perhaps this is the most overlooked necessity, because of either the lack of time, or the constant focus on the person being cared for. It is estimated that caregivers average four doctor visits per year, while non-caregivers average seven. (AlzheimerSolutions) Other ways that caregivers can manage the stress include maintaining their social life, especially their friendships and other social relationships, which can serve as a much needed break, or “escape” from their responsibilities as a caregiver.
Caregivers should also be willing to ask for and accept help from others whenever possible. This can include other family and friends, or community organizations such as a local Area Agency on Aging, faith based groups or adult day centers. Adult day centers are basically there to provide relief for caregivers. They provide social activities and minimal medical attention during normal business hours. It is also important for caregivers to have an outlet for their stress, which can be achieved through talking to their friends and co-workers about their experiences.
Joining a support group can also be a beneficial tool to learn how to deal with negative feelings. In order to properly manage their stress, caregivers have to learn how to deal with the common feelings associated with caregiving, such as embarrassment, guilt, helplessness and anger, and a support group could really help in that effort. Most people that become informal caregivers do so because of the unexpected illness or injury of a loved one.
Because they generally become caregivers without any training or education, they are not usually aware of the possible negative impact on their own health that can be a result of their commitment to caregiving. It is therefore extremely important that caregivers understand the warning signs and symptoms related to the stress associated with caregiving and the potential medical consequences. They need to take advantage of any services available to help them manage the stress, including help from friends, family and the community to ensure that they maintain their own health, and their ability to be a functioning caregiver.