Going out of your way to help someone out with an errand or task can feel rewarding. Whether it takes all day or even 30 minutes, being there to support the people around you is characteristic of a helpful, generous individual. Maybe you drive a loved one to the grocery store, put away a load of their laundry, or lend a listening ear when they are struggling with something. A lot of times, this is all a person needs to feel ‘back on their feet’ and supported. However, with the prevalence of an aging society, chronic illness, mental illness, and other debilitating life circumstances, a lot of individuals require more consistent, intensive care. Across the United States, an estimated 53 million people act in the role of unpaid caregiver to close friends and family members.1 That is about 1 in every 3 adults in the US acting as an informal caregiver!2 These people work tirelessly to provide physical and psychological care to another person. The reward of creating an unwavering support system for a struggling loved-one feels great, but sometimes the demands of this role can put strain on even the toughest of people. Being a caregiver can sometimes lead an individual to feeling heightened stress, anxiety, and burnout. In this blog, we will discuss caregiver stress and how individuals who are in this role can preserve their own mental and physical health while helping others.
What is a caregiver?
A caregiver is a person who provides care for another individual in physical or psychological need, such as an aging parent, a child, an ill spouse, relative, neighbor, friend, etc. These individuals may be unable to fully take care of themselves due to a myriad of reasons such as an injury, chronic illness, or an underlying medical condition. Due to the nature of their conditions, many caregivers are required to provide care on a regular basis, and the demands of the role can take a toll on a person’s mental and physical ability. They must learn how to manage many aspects, if not all aspects, of the other person’s life. This can include administering medication, bathing, going to the bathroom, eating, brushing their hair, preparing meals, transporting them to and from appointments, completing house chores, and even managing finances. Overall the number one goal of a caregiver is to ensure the safety and health of the person they are looking after.
Caregivers can be paid professionals, known as formal caregivers. Unpaid caregivers, however, are known as informal caregivers. As mentioned above, nearly 1 in 3 American adults acts as an informal caregiver to a family member or friend.2 Surveys have also shown that most caregivers are women, and nearly 3 in 5 family caregivers have paid jobs as well as their caregiving responsibilities.3 Estimations also show that nearly 70-80% of dementia caregivers are female, and provide at least 24 hours of work per week in unpaid care.1
As a caregiver, a person may be less likely to notice the straining effects this role can have on their own health and well-being. Being so focused on a loved one can create a stronger bond between two individuals, but it can also lead the caregiver to neglect their own needs. Having to put the person they are caring for at the forefront of all their decisions and actions day in and day out can cause emotional and physical stress, and take a very negative toll on their health.
Signs of Caregiver Stress/Burnout
About 40% of family caregivers in America report experiences of caregiver burnout.4 Though caregiving can feel very rewarding and provide individuals with a sense of accomplishment, it can also cause people to feel constantly worn out, frustrated, angry, or sad. Because many caregivers are unpaid, it can be difficult to ‘clock out’ from this role. They are providing help to their loved one around the clock, and this can cause caregivers to experience stress to much higher levels than non-caregivers. A lot of the time, the work that is required from caregiving can be very overwhelming and leaves little time to do other things, such as work or spending time with family and friends. According to a 2021 report, only 1 in 4 caregivers claimed that they were in excellent or very good health, and about ⅓ of caregivers reported that their health is worse than it was six months prior.1 About 55% of caregivers in this report stated that their had at least one medical conditions, with the most prevalent being sleep disturbances, depression, and chronic pain.1 Additionally, about 8 in 10 caregivers report having routine out-of-pocket expenses to provide quality care to their loved ones.5 About 26% of their personal income on average is spent on caregiving activities according to this 2021 report.5
Many different circumstances can lead to experiencing caregiver stress or burnout. Common factors include:
- Living with the person you are caring for
- Caring for someone who needs 24/7 care
- Caring for a spouse
- Feeling alone, helpless, depressed
- Struggling with financial issues
- Spending too many hours caregiving
- Lacking guidance from medical professionals
- Lacking coping skills
These are just a few of the circumstances that can lead to feeling caregiver burnout or stress. Now you may be wondering, how does caregiver stress manifest itself? Well, caregiver stress can actually take on many different forms. It can present as helplessness and loneliness when it feels like there is no one else who could possibly be struggling with the responsibility you do, it can occur as a result of giving the wrong medication, or it can cause feelings of bitterness and anger. Other individuals may also turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to relieve the stress. Overall, the symptoms that accompany caregiver burnout closely resemble those of stress and depression. Signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling worried all the time
- Feeling tired and sluggish often
- Fluctuating weight
- Sleeping very little or too much
- Becoming easily frustrated or angry
- Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
- Withdrawal from those around you
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Unable to concentrate
- Forgetting to eat a balanced diet
- Feeling sick more often than usual
- Experiencing headaches and body aches more often than usual
Who is most likely to experience caregiver burnout?
Formal and informal caregivers are both likely to experience caregiver burnout. Just because a person is being paid to provide care does not mean that it cannot cause similar levels of stress or anxiety that being an informal caregiver posits. However, research shows that women are most likely to report having stress and health issues compared to male caregivers.3 Individuals who are caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are also more likely to experience health problems and become depressed compared to caregivers of people who do not require constant care. In addition, women who are caregivers for their spouses are more likely to experience chronic illness such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They are also 2x more likely to have heart disease than other women who care for parents or children.3
How to Manage Caregiver Stress
With the onslaught of a pandemic and many changes within the healthcare system, many individuals currently find themselves in a caregiver role and struggle to find their footing. America is becoming an increasingly aged society, and more and more people are becoming dependent on caregivers. With so much dependence on these vital individuals, it is important that caregivers are also being taken care of. How can individuals be expected to provide the best care possible if they are not taken care of themselves? Recognizing the need to check-in with caregivers and assure them that they do not have to burden themselves with every single responsibility is something that any one of us can do. If you know someone who acts as a caregiver, maybe reach out and ask if their emotional and mental needs are being met. Lending a hand where we can to support our caregivers can make such a difference.
There isn’t a one-stop shop for beating caregiver stress. Usually, more than one form of support is necessary to feel better. Small, yet important steps can be taken to find one’s footing, such as:
- Asking for help. It may be difficult to ask for help or accept it when it is offered. Many times, people are unaware that those closest to them are struggling, especially if their anxieties and depression are not outwardly shown. It may surprise you how much people are willing to help, especially if it is a shared loved one you both care about!
- Learn ways to help your loved ones even better. Sometimes, hospitals, clinics, and rehab centers will offer classes that can help you learn how to better care for someone with a particular injury or illness. Being able to care for your loved one efficiently and correctly may relieve stress and even help a caregiver delegate responsibilities and tasks.
- Be intentional about self-care and taking time for yourself. Even if it feels like there is no relief from the burden of being a caregiver, find small ways to show up for yourself. Whether it is booking that long-overdue physical, taking a longer shower, or going outside for a quick breather or walking around the block, there are ways to show up for yourself. Prioritize that!