Key Takeaways

  • Serving as a family caregiver can be the most rewarding and demanding job you’ll ever have. Managing stress may help prevent health problems.  

  • Accessing local resources and accepting help from friends and family members are good ways to ease the caregiver burden.

  • Staying physically active, eating healthy foods, and keeping hydrated are essential to maintaining good health and continuing to enjoy life.

More than 1 in 6 people in the United States provide care to a family member who is 50 or older,1 an experience many describe as meaningful and rewarding. But a growing number of these caregivers, a majority over the age of 50 themselves, also say they are finding it difficult to take care of their own health.

Caregivers are typically unpaid volunteers who may work 24/7 caring for family members. In the United States, there are an estimated 53 million of these caregivers,1 many facing health challenges of their own. Over time, the stress from this important but demanding job can impact and worsen a caregiver’s physical health.

What causes caregivers stress?

“Stress often accompanies being a caregiver as it can be all-encompassing,” says Dana Cyra, executive director of quality improvement for Inclusa in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “To the point that caregiving and the duties within almost become one’s life and replace many of the caregiver’s former interests and activities; things that make life fulfilling and enjoyable."

Cyra, who has extensive experience with caregivers and caregiving, including as a family caregiver, says stress can have even more dire consequences.

“Sometimes, being a great caregiver can literally kill a person; leaving the person who depends on them without a backup who knows the care receiver and how to best care for him or her,” she says.

Therefore, it is truly imperative for a caregiver to ensure his or her own needs are being met; not doing so can have very negative, unintended consequences for those who love and depend on them, and that circle often goes well beyond the person they are providing direct care to."

What are the signs and effects of caregiver stress?

Learning to recognize caregiver stress symptoms can be an important first step toward taking care of your health. These signs may include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling alone or isolated
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Becoming easily irritated or angered
  • Feeling worried or sad often
  • Turning to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or drinking too much alcohol

How does caregiving affect physical health?

Over time, the accumulated stress of being a caregiver can begin to negatively affect your physical and mental health. Caregivers may develop conditions that include:2

  • Depression and anxiety
  • A weakened immune system
  • Excess weight and obesity
  • Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis. Depression and obesity can increase the risk of these diseases.
  • Problems with short-term memory or paying attention

How can I learn to manage the negative effects of caregiving?

Since it’s likely we all may be caregivers at some point in our lives, it’s never too early to learn what we can do to stay healthy.

“To alleviate stressors, first and foremost, recognize that if you want to be the best  caregiver possible, you need to attend to your own mental health, physical health, and overall well-being. Someone who is completely exhausted simply cannot provide the same quality of care as someone who is mentally and physically healthy,” Cyra says. 

“For example, a person who had a great night of rest has a much higher level of    patience than someone who barely slept at all. Who would you choose if you were the one who needed care?”

Where can I find caregiver support?

Cyra recommends exploring local resources and says an Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC) is a good place to start.

“All states have ADRCs and they can be a treasure trove of information about local resources to support caregivers. An ADRC will have information about classes that may be available for caregivers, support groups for caregivers, community services, respite options, services available to veterans, funding that may be available to caregivers or care receivers, etc. They talk to caregivers daily and can help to make the connections needed to be the best caregiver possible,” she says.

Here are some other resources you may find helpful:

Bryn Ceman, Older Americans Act Consultant-Caregiver Support Specialist for the Wisconsin Area Agency on Aging, said the best piece of advice she can offer caregivers is, ask for help.

Often caregivers don’t accept help for a variety of reasons: too hard to ask, don’t know who to ask, no one can care for loved one as well as they can, etc.," Ceman says. "When you start asking for help—you get it."

Cyra acknowledges the idea of asking for help can itself seem daunting.

“It is often hard to let others help, even when they offer, but try to push yourself to take at least small steps toward getting help,” Cyra says. “Work hard to identify things you would find helpful. For example, someone to sit and read to the care receiver, someone to help with housework, laundry, or outside chores, help with meal preparation, someone to just stay with the care receiver so you can leave for a bit of time, etc.”

The important thing, she says, is to try something—"no matter how small.”

“And if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned, don’t give up. Sometimes a person must accept that a task can be accomplished in a different way but still achieve good results.”

What else can I do to reduce caregiver stress symptoms?

Become your own best caregiver. Keep hydrated, follow healthy eating guidelines for older adults, and stay active. Choose evidence-based exercise programs that are suited to all ability levels. (If you’re just starting a fitness routine or are thinking about trying something new, be sure to talk with your doctor first.) You can find more information at NCOA’s Health for Older Adults hub.

Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to relax and reduce caregiver stress. They’re also good health practices. You might consider combining meditation or mindfulness practices with light physical exercise and stretching through activities such as Tai Chi or basic yoga.

There are many other healthy ways of easing caregiver stress—find what works for you and start reducing the negative physical effects of caregiving. You deserve the same quality of care you provide others.

“In short, make sure to take care of you,” Cyra says, “so you can continue to support both the care receiver and the broader circle of loved ones who depend on you.”

Inclusa has run several sessions of NCOA’s Aging Mastery Program for caregivers. For more information on becoming a licensed Aging Mastery site, please contact amp@ncoa.org.

Sources

1. Caregiving in the U.S. 2020: A Focused Look at Family Caregivers of Adults Age 50+. Found on the internet at https://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/AARP1340_RR_Caregiving50Plus_508.pdf

2. Medline. Caregiver Health. Found on the internet at https://medlineplus.gov/caregiverhealth.html

3. National Council on Aging, Aging Mastery Program (AMP), AMP for Caregivers.