How to prevent being a caregiver from having a negative effect on your health

April 7, 2020 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Being a caregiver for an aging or ill parent, partner, or spouse can be an all-consuming job. And it’s a job more Americans are taking on as the population gets older and more people are diagnosed with chronic health problems and cognitive health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. While focused on the needs of the person they’re caring for, many caregivers let their own mental and physical health needs go by the wayside. The result—a growing number of informal caregivers are facing poorer health.

In a recent issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers found that informal, unpaid caregivers may be putting their own health at risk as they support the person they care for. Almost 20% of the caregivers surveyed said their own health was fair or poor. Although the survey did not explore why the health of a caregiver might be poor, the demands of caregiving can significantly increase stress, which in turn can contribute to a range of health problems including heart disease, diabetes, a suppressed immune system, and depression and anxiety. In addition, the time demands of caregiving can make it more difficult for the caregiver to seek needed medical care such as recommended screenings and treatment for mental health issues.

Signs of caregiver stress to be aware of

There are several different signs related to high levels of caregiver stress, including:

  • Ongoing fatigue
  • Problems falling or staying asleep
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Frequent headaches
  • Getting sick more frequently, which can be a sign of a weakened immune system
  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
  • A shorter temper or frequent feelings of anger or frustration
  • Trouble concentrating

Steps that can help caregivers protect their health

Although it might seem obvious to someone outside the situation, caregivers are often so busy, stressed, and worried about meeting their parent, partner, or spouse’s needs that they don’t ask for help. That help can come in many different forms:

  • Help with their own responsibilities like grocery shopping, laundry, meal preparation, and housekeeping
  • Assistance with caregiving, which allows the caregiver to take time away to decompress, practice self-care, and receive medical or mental health care when needed. This support can come from friends and family or professional respite caregivers.
  • Moral support, such as non-judgmental listening to the caregiver’s concerns without offering solutions or advice
  • Connection with other people in the same situation, whether that’s in the form of an in-person support group or an online group like Family Caregiver Alliance

If you’re a caregiver, it’s also helpful to set some limits on taking on other responsibilities. If you work, consider talking with your manager or HR representative and let them know about your caregiving responsibilities. Ask what types of support are available. It may be cutting back on your hours, using Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, or not taking on additional projects or responsibilities at work. With an already full schedule, think about how you can also avoid taking on more family or community commitments.