Caregiver Stress: Is It Time To Give Yourself A Break?

Caregiver Stress: 
What It Is and How to Care for Yourself.


No one needs to tell a caregiver that caring for a senior family member or other senior loved one can be stressful. In addition to the constant senior care provided, one has their own busy life to live, with the demands of family, work, and the rest. Caring for a senior can be extremely stressful and can lead to burnout, and health issues of your own.

What is caregiver stress?

Caregiver stress is the emotional and physical strain of caregiving. It can take many forms.

For instance, one may feel:

  • Frustrated and angry while taking care of someone with dementia who often wanders away or becomes easily upset
  • Guilty because they think they should be able to provide better care, despite all the other things that they have to do
  • Lonely because all the time they spend caregiving has hurt their social life
  • Exhausted when they go to bed at night

Caregiver stress appears to affect women more than men. About 75 percent of caregivers who report feeling very strained emotionally, physically, or financially are women. Although caregiving can be challenging, it’s important to note that it can also have its rewards. It can give you a feeling of giving back to a loved one. It can also make you feel needed and can lead to a stronger relationship with the person receiving care.

About half of caregivers report that:

  • They appreciate life more as a result of their caregiving experience
  • Caregiving has made them feel good about themselves


Can caregiver stress affect my health?

Although most caregivers are in good health, it’s not uncommon for caregivers to have serious health problems.

Research shows that caregivers:

  • Are more likely to be have symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Are more likely to have a long-term medical problem, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis
  • Have higher levels of stress hormones
  • Spend more days sick with an infectious disease
  • Have a weaker immune response to the influenza, or flu, vaccine
  • Have slower wound healing
  • Have higher levels of obesity
  • May be at higher risk for mental decline, including problems with memory and paying attention

One research study found that elderly people who felt stressed while taking care of their disabled spouses were 63 percent more likely to die within four years than caregivers who were not feeling stressed. Part of the reason that caregivers often have health problems is that they are less likely to take good care of themselves.

For instance, women caregivers, compared with women who are not caregivers, are less likely to:

  • Get needed medical care
  • Fill a prescription because of the cost
  • Get a mammogram
  • Get enough sleep
  • Cook healthy meals
  • Get enough physical activity


How can one tell if caregiving is causing too much stress?

Caregiving may be putting too much stress on you if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Becoming easily irritated or angered
  • Feeling constantly worried
  • 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.


What can one do to prevent or relieve caregiver stress?

To begin with, 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.

Research shows that people who take an active, problem-solving approach to caregiving issues are less likely to feel stressed than those who react by worrying or feeling helpless. Some hospitals offer classes that can teach you how to care for someone with the disease that your loved one is facing. To find these classes, ask your doctor, contact an organization that focuses on this disease, or call your local Area Agency on Aging.

Additional tips for reducing stress include:

  • Locating caregiving resources in your community
  • Asking for and accepting help. Be prepared with a mental list of ways that others can help you, and let the helper choose what she would like to do. If you need financial help taking care of a relative, don’t be afraid to ask family members to contribute their fair share
  • Saying “no” to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals
  • Cutting yourself some slack. Don’t feel guilty that you are not a “perfect” caregiver. Just as there is no “perfect parents,” there’s no such thing as a “perfect caregiver.” You’re doing the best you can
  • Identifying what you can and cannot change. You may not be able to change someone else’s behavior, but you can change the way that you react to it
  • Setting realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time
  • Prioritizing, making lists, and establishing a daily routine
  • Staying in touch with family and friends
  • Joining a support group for caregivers in your situation, such as caring for someone with dementia. Besides being a great way to make new friends, you can also pick up some caregiving tips from others who are facing the same problems as you
  • Making time each week to do something that you want to do, such as going to a movie
  • Finding time to be physically active on most days of the week, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep
  • Seeing your doctor for a checkup. Tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver and tell him about any symptoms of depression or sickness you may be having
  • Trying to keep your sense of humor

If you work outside the home and are feeling overwhelmed, consider taking a break from your job. Employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for relatives. Ask your human resources office about options for unpaid leave.


What can a caregiver do if they 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.

Below are the various types of respite services that are available:

  • In-home respite. In this type of service, someone comes to your home to provide care. The type of care can range from simple companionship to nursing services
  • Adult day-care centers. Many adult day-care centers are located in churches or community centers. Some day-care centers provide care for both elderly adults and young children. During the day, the two groups meet for several hours to share in activities such as reading stories. This type of contact seems to benefit both young and old
  • Short-term nursing homes. If your loved one needs occasional nursing care and you must leave town for a couple weeks, some nursing homes will care for your loved one while you’re gone
  • Day hospitals. Some hospitals provide medical care to patients during the day, then at night, the patient returns home

If you feel that caregiving for a senior loved one has become too much for you to handle, it may be time to find an assisted living facility for where they can receive quality 24-hour care. To locate a facility in your area, visit the Alternatives for Seniors website or call a Senior Specialists at (888) WE-ASSIST (888-932-7747) for personalized assistance.


BLOG Date: Thursday, October 29, 2015
Writer: Ryan Allen