If you are a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, you are likely familiar with “caregiver stress.” It’s a serious condition, one that has been studied in clinical research trials extensively. Caregiver stress (also called caregiver overload) is not simply a negative response to an overly busy schedule, but rather, a serious physical and emotional condition.
Alzheimer’s caregivers have signed on for a tremendous undertaking, many not knowing exactly what they were in for during the early stages of the disease. A caregiver wears many hats from being a care planner, chauffeur and cook to a financial manager, housekeeper and 24/7 nurse.
As the disease progresses to the dementia stage, caregivers must learn to cope with some considerable challenges.
These include behavioral symptoms and other safety issues like wandering, not to mention the overwhelming loss of the person once known–who’s personality may have become unrecognizable.
The more hours a caregiver devotes to their loved one with Alzheimer’s, the higher the risk of caregiver overload and stress-related health issues. These may include anxiety, depression, physical exhaustion or any other mental/emotional or physical maladies.
Many studies have been conducted to evaluate the impact that caregiving has on family caregivers. One study found that caregivers had a 6.3% higher rate of anxiety and depression, as compared to non-caregivers with a 4.3% incidence of emotional disorders. Other types of mental illness were also noted in caregivers at a rate of 17.4% (compared to 10.9% in non-caregivers). Disabilities, physical health-related illnesses and psychiatric disorders were noted at a higher rate in caregivers compared to non-caregivers.
The Alzheimer’s Association polled dementia caregivers and discovered that 35% said their health has gone downhill due to caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Only 19% of those caring for a person in the early stages of the disease reported health problems due to caregiving responsibilities.
The risk of getting Alzheimer’s is higher for dementia caregivers than for others and many have unknown conditions such as high blood sugar, hypertension, sleep disorders or weight gain due to stress.
Another recent clinical study published in The International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry discovered that caregiver stress may put a person at higher risk for cognitive decline, leading to a higher risk for Alzheimer’s. The study evaluated over 200 people with the disease and their caregivers, evaluating their daily exercise routines. The findings were that regular exercise may help to protect against conditions such as depression while lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease for caregivers.
Many family caregivers are working to juggle the care of two separate households, a large percentage work full or part-time jobs, have relationships and care for their own children while devoting much of their time to a loved one with Alzheimer’s. These caregivers are at higher risk for caregiver depression and other mental and physical health conditions, like stress and overload than those who do not have as many demands on their time.
The National Institute on Aging reports that dementia caregivers must take regular time off for their health and wellbeing. Learning about the high risks for caregiver stress and integrating tools to cope effectively with the toll that caregiving can take, is one of the most important jobs for caregivers.
Below are 10 of the top risks of caregiver stress/overload:
Take the following self-questionnaire at least once a month.
Particularly if you identify several of the highest-risk factors above:
If you note problems in any of the categories above, seek help immediately from hired professional respite care or your support group. Make an appointment with your physician if you identify emotional or physical symptoms (like chronic anxiety or pain, depression, high blood pressure, drinking too much). In addition, be sure to schedule a yearly health screening.
By taking time off, caregivers allow themselves to go the distance. Without attention to self-care, many caregivers become too ill to continue caring for their loved one. Fighting the battle against Alzheimer’s disease is not simply about caring for your loved one, it also means taking control of your own physical and mental health and wellbeing.
A Caregiver’s Guide: Information and resources about caring for a person with Alzheimer’s (and other types of dementia).
ARCH National Respite Network: Helps caregivers locate respite services in their community. Offers programs, services, and locator tools, as well as respite training webinars.
The Alzheimer’s Association Caregiver’s Center: Includes links to legal assistance, access to finding local resources, educational information on various stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a 24-hour helpline for support, access to support groups, message board and online community.
The Alzheimer’s Association Recommended Reading: Informational and inspirational books recommended for Alzheimer’s caregivers.
The Alzheimer’s Association: Booklet on self-care for caregivers.
The National Institutes on Aging for Alzheimer’s Caregivers: A great online source of information for caregivers of people in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, building a support network and community resources (such as respite services, meals, and transportation).
Family Caregiver Alliance: Includes a nationwide map, click on your state to find education and services for family caregivers, caregiving products, education on debilitating diseases (such as Alzheimer’s), home care services, legal help and advocacy, extensive information on local community services.
Caregiver Action Network: Offers expert advice from former or current caregivers, tips for caregivers, volunteer support network listing in over 40 states, caregivers toolbox, caregiver stories, coping with Alzheimer’s.
Which Alzheimer’s risks were you surprised to see on this list? Which were you already aware of? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.