When a loved one is facing a severe illness, close family members often play an important role in the patient’s care. Primary caregivers assist with activities of daily living, emotional support, household chores and running errands.
Caregiving can be a rewarding labor of love, but it also brings many challenges. According to AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 53 million Americans provided unpaid care for another adult in 2020. Nearly a quarter of respondents say caregiving has negatively affected their own health.
Researchers tell us that the mental health needs of caregivers are just as important as those of patients. That’s because caregivers often find themselves grappling with prolonged stress, which can lead to burnout, anxiety and depression. One 2017 study found that about a quarter of hospice caregivers had depressive symptoms, and nearly one quarter had signs of anxiety.
The good news is that help is available. Let’s take a closer look at how you can take care of your own emotional needs while caring for someone else.
Caregiving and Chronic Stress
Believe it or not, some stress is okay as part of a healthy life. Also known as your fight-or-flight response, acute stress helps you act quickly in an emergency, such as escaping from a burning building.
However, caregiving often leads to more harmful chronic stress, in which cortisol and other stress hormones remain elevated. This leads to negative effects, such as difficulty sleeping and exercising, social isolation and poor diet. Over time, caregiver stress can impair your immune system, aggravate pre-existing conditions and increase your risk of mental illness.
If you are caring for a loved one, you may notice the following symptoms of caregiver stress:
- Feeling tired from lack of quality sleep
- Trouble concentrating
- Feelings of resentment
- Avoiding responsibilities or leisure activities
- Excessive drinking or substance use
Prolonged, elevated stress over the course of a loved one’s illness can lead to caregiver burnout. This very real condition happens when you feel overwhelmed from caregiving activities. You may also feel hopeless as your loved one’s condition deteriorates.
People who experience caregiver burnout often find themselves feeling intense resentment, anger and depression. You may have trouble relaxing even when you’re tired, but then still feel tired after sleeping. You may find that you catch colds and other illnesses more easily. You may become more impatient and irritable. Burnout can also lead to declining life satisfaction.
Caregiver Anxiety & Depression
As noted above, studies have shown that family caregivers face an increased risk of mental health disorders including anxiety and depression. This can happen when prolonged stress and burnout go unaddressed.
Anxiety involves intense worry and racing thoughts. People with anxiety may go to great lengths to avoid situations that trigger upsetting thoughts or feelings. For caregivers, anxiety often results from fears over their loved one’s well-being and uncertainty about the future. You may sense a loss of control and feelings of impending doom if your loved one is near the end of their life.
People with anxiety experience a number of symptoms including trouble eating, shortness of breath and feeling like your heart is racing. You may also feel irritable, have trouble sleeping and experience excessive sweating.
Depression causes persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and may include thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Signs of depression in caregivers include avoiding pleasurable activities out of guilt. You may suffer from insomnia, nightmares or intrusive negative thoughts about your loved one. Depression can cause difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and exhaustion even after sleeping.
As your loved one’s condition progresses, you may worry about making mistakes or whether you’re doing a “good enough” job of caring for them. You might be preoccupied with future treatments they may need. You may also find it difficult to talk with others about your caregiving experience, worried that they won’t understand.
Self-Care for Caregivers
When you’re taking care of someone else, it can be tempting to neglect your own needs. Here are some simple ways to manage the stress that comes with caregiving so you can feel your best while helping your loved one.
- Focus on the positive. Serving as a caregiver is a way of showing gratitude. This may be your way of saying “thank you” to a parent who raised you or a sibling who was there for you. Be forgiving of yourself and others and remember that no one is perfect. By simply being there and doing your best, you’re helping them feel more safe and comfortable.
- Take breaks. As a caregiver, it’s essential that you take some time to rest and engage in activities you enjoy. Continue spending time on hobbies, worship and your career. Watch a funny movie to lighten the mood.
- Accept help. Remember that nobody can do it alone. Caregiving is easier if family members share the load. Delegate responsibilities, so that one person does the shopping while another helps with the chores. If a neighbor offers to help with cooking, let them!
- Take care of yourself. Always remember that you can’t give your best if you’re not feeling well yourself. Be sure to stay up-to-date with your own doctor visits and medications. Eat healthy meals that you enjoy, get some exercise and make sure you get enough sleep.
- Stay in touch. Social isolation is a risk among caregivers. But speaking with friends and family members can be a source of encouragement and stress relief during this difficult time.
- Seek counseling. A professional therapist can help you navigate times of crisis in your life. They can help you process your feelings as your loved one’s condition changes and deal with problems as they occur. Counseling may also give you strategies for communicating with family and friends in stressful situations.
Help for Caregivers
At Crown Hospice, we understand that caregivers need care just as much as our patients. We can assure you that it’s normal to experience periods of sadness and frustration. Our caregiver services include spiritual support, respite care and bereavement support.
Caregiving can be physically, emotionally and spiritually draining. That’s why our chaplains, aides and volunteers are there to offer prayer and a listening ear to our families.
Our hospice volunteers and aides provide respite care to ensure that your loved one gets the care they need when you take a break. We offer assistance with activities of daily living, household chores and errands. We spend time with your loved one for positive social interaction.
We also offer bereavement support after your loved one passes away. Services include up to 13 months of grief counseling and community grief support groups. Everyone’s grief journey is unique, and we are there to help you every step of the way.
Hospice care provides comfort for patients who are facing a terminal diagnosis. It also assists family members as a loved one approaches the end of their life.