Caring for Aged Parents? Beware Caregiver’s Stress

Copyright 2006 Dr. Eileen Silva

Do you, like many other Baby Boomers, now find yourself caring for aging parents or other older relatives or friends who have health problems, disabilities, or the need for assistance with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, and eating? If so, you are part of one fourth of American families who are caring for an older family member, an adult child with disabilities, or a friend. According to the AARP, you are one of more than 22.4 million Americans who are now caregivers to older adults, a number that has tripled in the last 10 years alone. The average amount of time these Americans spend on caregiving is about 20 hours per week with many of these hours spent in physically demanding work. With the life spans raising over the past century from 49 -77, some children are actually caring for invalid parents 20 years, longer than the parents spent raising them.

I would like to ask you a question? How is your own personal health? One third of caregivers describe their personal health as fair to poor, and many worry that they won’t outlive the person for whom they are caring. As you and other caregivers struggle to balance caregiving with other responsibilities, including full-time jobs and caring for children, constant stress can lead to “burnout” and health problems. You may feel guilty, frustrated, and angry from time to time, suffer from depression, and become ill easily yourself. Caring for even the most beloved parents can seem like a burden when your own health collapses from endless hours of caring for their needs.

For example, caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or other kinds of dementia at home can be overwhelming. The caregiver must cope with declining abilities and difficult behaviors that affect even basic activities of daily living and often become hard to manage for both the care receiver and the caregiver. As the disease worsens, the care receiver usually needs 24-hour care.

In addition to the constant care required, caregivers of parents with this type of problem also suffer from the emotional pain of losing communication with parents who no longer recognize them. To sustain this, and other types of prolonged stress and care, you need to call upon other family members, friends, and neighbors for help. If other caregivers aren’t available to fill in, respite care services may be available in the community to help you. Respite care can be a good way for you to get a break (respite) from constant caregiving.

Some caregivers are still raising their own children and feel torn between the needs of their children and the needs of their parents. In fact, in this day of small families, many Americans may have more parents than children. They also feel torn between their own needs for work, vacations, privacy, hobbies, or friends and feelings of guilt, resentment, or even depression or martyrdom. Both aging parents and caregiver children lose independence and privacy. Even the most congenial relationships can suffer from these loses.

Here are some recommendations to help you take care of your own health:

• Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water. Avoid sugars, fats, and salt. Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Follow the guidelines of the government’s food pyramid for proper amounts and food types to include in your daily menu. Take a good multivitamin for extra protection.

• Get plenty of rest and sleep, even if you have to enlist help to care for your parents while you rest. Spend some time unwinding and relaxing during the day as well.

• Get regular, healthy exercise at least three days a week. Regular exercise not only reduces stress and improves health, but also produces endorphins, which add to a good feeling mood.

• Keep your own health care up to date, including yearly checkups. If you experience negative feelings, get counseling from doctor or therapist, or share your feelings with good friends.

• Speaking of friends, keep your social life active in order to stay connected with your community and to give an outlet for stress. Seek comfort and support in your faith-based group as well.

• Remember you are not alone. Seek support groups for caregivers, especially if you are caring for a loved one with a disease. Look online for government or state supported groups and help departments. Find community support groups.

• Make arrangements for your own vacations and retreats, for regrouping and refreshing yourself, your spouse, and your own children. Remember, you are not the only one affected by your live-in parent situation. Your entire family experiences changes and stresses along with you. Arrange for someone to stay with your parent and spend some time as a family away from home and those extra responsibilities.

• Remind yourself of the care that your parent lavished on you as a child and how you felt about that parent then. Often, we get so busy that we forget how much we really love our parents, especially in the throes of caring for them. Try to revisit happier days with them and remind both them and yourself of those times. Bring out family pictures and relive happy days together.

If you are a caregiver, remember to care for your own health as well as that of your loved one. Seek comfort, help, time to refresh yourself, and regular exercise to ensure that you will remain able to give that care and still maintain your personal wellness.