Caregiving is a tough job. This November, within which numerous Health Days are commemorated, we remember the individuals who lovingly give baths and medications, clean houses, shop for, and comfort the millions of elderly and ailing patients who are clients, friends or loved ones. We also recognise that the everyday demands of caregiving are already a full-time job, made even more challenging with the additional decision-making and protective measures to safeguard your loved ones from COVID-19.

November is National Family Caregivers Month and this year’s theme is “Caregiving Around the Clock.”

National Family Caregivers Month highlights essential information to help caregivers cope with a tough, and sometimes thankless job. Focus is placed on the challenges caregivers experience, learning the skills to speak effectively with doctors, and being open to new, assistive technologies that can lighten your load and most importantly prevent Caregiver Burnout. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?

Caregivers often ignore their own health

Watching a parent age or seeing someone change drastically due to illness can be devastating. Harvard Health reports, “Approximately 70 percent of caregivers indicated they don’t see their doctor regularly because of their responsibilities.” Maintaining your own wellbeing is crucial, but often difficult. If you are not sleeping well, exercising, or feel yourself becoming reclusive, speak to a health care professional about depression. It can hit anyone, at any time.

What is Caregiver Stress Syndrome?

Caregiver stress syndrome is a condition characterised by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It typically results from a person neglecting his/her own physical and emotional health because he/she is focused on caring for an ill, injured or disabled loved one. Caregiving may involve meeting complex demands without any training or help.

There are several factors that can play a role in caregiver stress syndrome. For some caregivers, the stresses of caring for a person who has a debilitating illness and feeling helpless while caregiving, results in burnout. For others, the lack of boundaries between their roles as a caregiver and a spouse, child, or other loved one can be challenging. Caregivers put unrealistic expectations on themselves, thinking that they can do it all and refusing to ask for help. The financial resources needed to care for someone with a long-term illness or disability also contributes to the overwhelm.

The magnitude of the problem

Caregiver stress syndrome is strongly associated with negative health outcomes. Between 40 to 70% of caregivers suffer from depression, while many caregivers also have anxiety because of the stress associated with providing care. Anger and irritability are also common symptoms of caregiver stress syndrome. The chronic stress may also lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and a compromised immune system.

According to studies by Harvard Health:

– 45% of caregivers reported chronic conditions, including heart attacks, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis;

– Women who spend nine or more hours a week caring for a spouse increased their risk of heart disease by 100%;

– Caregivers have a 23% higher level of stress hormones and 15% lower level of antibody responses than non-caregivers,

– 72% of caregivers report that they had not gone to the doctor as often as they should have;

– 58% of caregivers state that their eating habits are worse than before they assumed this role;

– Caregivers between the ages of 66 and 96 have a 63% higher mortality rate than non-caregivers of the same age.

What to look out for?

The signs include:

– Feeling overwhelmed or helpless

– Feeling alone, isolated, or deserted by others

– Sleeping too much or too little

– Gaining or losing a lot of weight, change in appetite

– Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy

– Becoming easily irritated or angered

– Feeling tired most of the time

– Having headaches or body aches often

– Getting sick more often

– Turning to unhealthy behaviours like smoking or drinking alcohol

What can I do to prevent or relieve caregiver stress?

Once you have recognised the signs of caregiver stress syndrome, the next step is to manage it. One of the first things that you can and should do is to take a break. Having this condition isn’t unusual, the key is to make your own health a priority so that you can continue to provide care for your loved one.

Remember that if you feel better, you can take better care of your loved one.

Taking steps to prevent or relieve caregiver stress WILL help prevent health problems.

It will also be easier to focus on the rewards of caregiving. Some ways to help yourself include:

– Staying in touch with family and friends. It’s important for you to have emotional support.

– Asking for and accepting help. Make a list of ways others can help you. Let helpers choose what they would like to do. For instance, someone might sit with the person you care for, while you do an errand. Someone else might pick up groceries for you.

– Learning better ways to help your loved one. For example, hospitals offer classes that can teach you how to care for someone with an injury or illness.

– Finding caregiving resources in your community to help you. Many communities have adult daycare services or respite services. Using one of these can give you a break from your caregiving duties.

– Taking care of your own health. Try to find time to be physically active on most days of the week, choose healthy foods, and get enough sleep. Make sure that you keep up with your medical care such as regular checkups and screenings.

– Considering taking a break from your job if you also work and are feeling overwhelmed. Check with your human resources office about your options.

– Engaging technology. There are apps to assist in managing the pharmaceutical needs of your loved ones and ensure medications are delivered in a timely manner.

Caregiver stress syndrome does not have to be your reality. While it can have a negative impact on your life and well-being, there are ways to recover and to be a happier, healthier caregiver for your loved one. By taking time for yourself and focusing on your own needs, you can avoid the perils of caregiver stress syndrome.

Look out for HEALTH PLUS every Tuesday for more informative and healthful articles. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this topic, please email [email protected]