Caregiving is a noble and rewarding role. However, caregivers often provide long-term, full-time care to their recipients. Unfortunately, long-term caregiving can have a negative impact on caregivers, the people they are caring for, and other people close to them. Informal caregivers don't receive compensation for their efforts, so they often work full-time jobs, manage their other household members, and juggle house duties and other responsibilities on top of caring for their loved ones. Overloading oneself with these responsibilities may lead to resentment, strained relationships, poor mental health, and poor heart health. We are here to help with a guide on how caregivers can reduce stress and improve their health.
Who are Caregivers?
Caregivers are some of the most indispensable people in society. Today, more than 21.3 percent of Americans are caregivers. According to a 2020 report by the AARP, more American adults are taking on the caregiver role, often for recipients with increasingly complex support or medical needs. Most caregivers are adults providing informal support for a parent, spouse, or other elderly relatives. Many of these caregivers do not have adequate or affordable support and services. Also, increasing expenses in health care means that a family caregiver is more likely to offer home-based care.
According to a publication from the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of Arizona, U.S. adults aged 65 years and older will outnumber children aged 18 years or younger by 2035. This staggering statistic shows the number of people in need of a caregiver will outnumber people able to provide care. The inadequate means and support for caregivers will continue to increase, adding to caregiver stress and health problems. Caregivers need help and resources before stress and burnout lead to chronic health conditions.
What is Caregiver Stress?
Most familial caregivers provide care 24/7, which can mean less time for work, friends, and self-care. When loved ones cannot take care of their ADLs (Activities of Daily Living), caregivers develop additional stress. Caregivers may seek to alleviate this stress by turning to a home-care service, which can become a costly solution. Alternatively, caregivers may try to ease their load by enlisting friends of relatives to help provide care for their loved one. Unfortunately, these "untrained" assistants may need help completing tasks for the loved one, thus putting burden back on the caregivers.
Caregiver stress is still present even if the caregiver doesn't live in the same house as their loved one. When a caregiver and their loved one live separately, a caregiver may have to frequently travel to their loved one's home to cook, clean, pay bills, and provide transportation for doctor's appointments and trips to the store. Plus, a caregiver can experience stress from constantly worrying about whether their loved one is safe when the caregiver is not present.
A caregiver often begins their journey believing they can handle all the caregiving tasks alone. Such confidence leads to pain and guilt when they cannot provide care with the ease and enthusiasm they originally envisioned. They may feel guilty for falling behind in other aspects of their life or for their inability to adequately care for their loved ones.
Common signs of caregiver stress include but are not limited to:
- Depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Exhaustion, often with insomnia or sleeping too much
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Trouble concentrating
- Neglecting other responsibilities
- Resentment for ill loved ones or others with free time
- The onset of bad habits or addictions, such as binge eating, drinking, or smoking
- New or worsening health problems
- Neglecting their own needs
In cases where caregivers may not have support from friends or family or external help, they cannot take the necessary breaks to care for themselves and other areas of their lives. Prolonged caregiver stress leads to mental and physical decline. If this trend becomes a constant, the caregiver may begin to feel isolated, leading to caregiver burnout, psychological distress, and a higher risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease.
Caregiver Stress and Heart Problems
A disruption in the complex inner workings of the heart could lead to chronic heart conditions. If the body is not cared for properly, the heart suffers, and the caregiver could develop a chronic disease such as heart disease.
Constant caregiver stress often leads to high blood pressure, one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, leading to more deaths than the second through seventh leading causes of death combined. As such, it is best to learn more about ways to reduce risk factors, which will, in turn, reduce caregiver stress and burnout.
Heart conditions may not show symptoms immediately, so reducing or eliminating risk factors will positively affect the heart. Risk factors for heart-related problems include:
- Age: getting older means an increased risk of a weakened heart muscle or narrowing arteries
- Family history
- Sex: men are usually at greater risk for heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Smoking or excessive alcohol consumption
- Unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
- Obesity or being overweight
- Insufficient sleep
These risk factors may seem scary because people with overloaded schedules tend to have a few of these habits. The good news is a few lifestyle changes and getting support may help erase some of these risks from caregivers' lives.
Keeping the Heart and Mind Healthy
As February is heart health month, we have compiled a list of actions to decrease risks for heart disease and other chronic conditions. Fortunately for caregivers, most measures to reduce stress and create a healthier lifestyle are the same for keeping the heart healthy.
- Don't use tobacco products
- Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Do something physically active for 30 to 60 minutes daily
- Eat a healthy, nutritious diet that is low in salt, sugar, processed carbohydrates, and cholesterol
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Sleep well: set a sleep schedule, get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and meditate before bed if needed
- Find healthy ways to manage stress
- Schedule regular health screenings with medical professionals
Of course, lifestyle changes and reducing stress are more challenging than a simple list. The emotional toll on caregivers could directly cause their declining physical health. They may want their healthy spouse or parent back so they can become a spouse or child again- not just a caregiver. While these desires are natural, thoughts like these, in addition to constantly feeling ill or being in pain when there is so much to do may make them feel hopeless and helpless. Caregivers may get to the point where they no longer care about making things better.
Feeling powerless and stuck is the exact reason for getting help and support. Reaching out to family and friends or finding a local support group for caregivers will help ease feelings of isolation and hopelessness. For example, spreading caregiving responsibilities among family may help relieve some caregiver stressors. Asking someone to step in and take care of the care recipient so the primary caregiver can run errands, spend some time with their spouses and children, or get some much-needed self-care time is a great place to start.
There are several ways to get help with caregiving duties. Some of them include the following:
- Consider respite care. Respite care provides short-term relief for caregivers. It can last as long as one day, several days, or even several weeks.
- Schedule regular check-ins with a family or friend, not only for sanity checks but to help coordinate other people to come in and help with the caregiving responsibilities, as needed
- If someone offers assistance, say "Yes!"
- Relinquish some control; micromanaging or giving overly detailed orders may reduce the number of people willing to help
- Contact a support program to help find resources, including counselors
Getting help with some caregiver burdens alleviates some stress, but it's also important to practice self-care daily. Self-care doesn't just mean being pampered at a luxury spa or maintaining basic hygiene. Caregivers must maintain good overall health. Not only must they take care of themselves physically, but doing things that make them happy daily improves mental health.
Simple ways to improve mental health and increase happiness include:
- Picking up an old hobby or finding a new one
- Listening to your favorite music
- Rekindling and maintaining personal relationships
- Practicing gratitude; wake up in the morning and find one thing that you are grateful for and build upon that feeling
- Practicing mindfulness: meditate and act with compassion and empathy
- Being kind to yourself; don't be overly critical or a perfectionist
- Sharing feelings with a therapist or support group
- Laughing: try watching a funny movie, reading a funny book, and finding humor in everyday situations
Small steps to improve happiness lead to better emotions, increased self-worth, and reduced risk of poor heart health.
Better Support, Less Stress, Better Heart Health
Finding social support for caregiver burdens is essential to reducing stress. If delegating caregiving tasks isn't an option, finding someone to talk to about personal struggles and negative feelings will help manage some stress. Heart health isn't just about increasing physical activities and eating right. Mental and emotional wellness is just as essential.
An excellent solution to alleviate the stress of caregiving is senior living. Care recipients will have constant care in a supportive community of aging adults. We at Clearwater Living have culinary and lifestyle programs that offer a variety of dining spaces and menus from which to choose. We also offer art and intellectual classes, social events, regular shopping trips with provided transportation, and other excellent amenities to enhance the lives of residents in our senior living communities.
Senior living can help to mend caregiver and receiver relationships into what they used to be. The caregiver can become the child of a parent or the supportive spouse again.