Harvard Women's Health Watch

4 things you can do to alleviate caregiver stress

If you are taking care of a loved one, you need to take special care of yourself, too. There are resources to help you.

caregiver stress
Image: Bigstock

More than 65 million Americans—two-thirds of whom are women—are taking care of a disabled or ailing family member. If you're among them, you're well aware that caring for a loved one can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life, but it can also be one of the most challenging, especially to your own health.

"We know family caregivers are under a particular amount of stress. And stress over time can cause them to become ill," says Dr. Diane Mahoney, Jacque Mohr Professor of Geriatric Nursing Research at MGH Institute of Health Professions, an academic affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital. In fact, more than 20% of caregivers report that their health has suffered as a result of their responsibilities.

If you are moving into a caregiver role, or if you've been filling it for some time and are beginning to feel the stress, you may want to consider the following, often overlooked, advice.

1. Take care of your own health.

There's a reason air travelers are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to a child's: you are better able to take care of others when your own physical condition is secure. Eat well, even if that means simple, easy-to-prepare meals. Set aside time to exercise, perhaps when the person you're caring for is sleeping. Get adequate sleep. Have the recommended screenings, shots, and check-ups. You'll be better equipped to handle stress if you're fit and rested.

2. Enlist others.

Few people can do it alone. Ask family members and close friends to share the care. Even people who can't provide hands-on care may be able to take on tasks such as grocery shopping, paying bills, coordinating medical appointments, or handling insurance paperwork. If you don't have a group of family and friends to call upon, the website of the National Alliance for Caregiving, www.caregiving.org, can help you locate caregiver services and choose among long-term care options. Consultation with a geriatric care manager or social worker may help you identify local services—whether you need just someone to help with household chores or a registered nurse to administer medication and other therapies.

3. Break away occasionally.

If you're caring for someone who needs constant attention, there is no question that you will need relief at some point. Just setting aside a few minutes for a walk in the park or a chat with a friend can make a world of difference. "We've found that we can significantly reduce stress by giving the caretakers mini-respites—even 30-minute breaks occasionally," Dr. Mahoney says. Federal legislators have also acknowledged that unpaid caregivers need occasional vacations. In 2006, the Lifespan Respite Care Act was passed to provide relief services for family caregivers. You can find information on respite services available near you by going to the website of the ARCH National Respite Network, www.archrespite.org.

4. Create a support system for yourself.

Over time, caregiving can take an emotional toll. Even if you have help with the actual caregiving, you're likely to need emotional support, too. Many hospitals, health care plans, and religious organizations offer support groups for caregivers. Support groups are a good place to vent your feelings and share ideas with people who are facing similar situations. Dr. Mahoney has found that online support groups—which don't require face-to-face participation, travel, or arranging for a substitute caregiver—have been a good alternative for some people. If you're not comfortable with a group, a geriatric care manager may be able to provide needed support and perspective.

Psychotherapy can also be valuable. Providing care for a family member may trigger a host of emotions, including inadequacy, regret, guilt, and even resentment. Caregivers are also at increased risk of depression. A therapist can help you work through such issues and develop coping mechanisms. If you don't know where to turn, ask your clinician for a referral.

Available resources

Family caregiving is now acknowledged as a legitimate—though unpaid—occupation. Federal, state, and local agencies have recognized the value of this service, and nonprofit associations like the National Alliance for Caregiving and the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) are constantly providing new resources to make the job easier. Don't hesitate to draw upon them!