It is estimated that more than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. For the vast majority, the deeply personal responsibility of caring for a loved one with a devastating disease constitutes a “labor of love,” but caregiving can take a severe emotional and physical toll on those providing it.
In fact, 59 percent of family caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias rate their emotional stress as high or very high, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
A leading contributor is the fact that caring for a person living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia poses special challenges. People in the middle to later stages of Alzheimer’s disease experience losses in judgment, orientation and the ability to understand and communicate effectively, leaving family caregivers to help manage these issues.
An even greater stressor for many, however, are the personality and behavioral changes that accompany the disease.
“With Alzheimer’s disease, family and friends experience a series of losses,” says Ruth Drew, director of Family and Information Services at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Watching a family member gradually lose their abilities day by day is extremely painful and stressful.”
Caregiver stress warning signs
Given that people with Alzheimer’s typically live four to eight years after diagnosis, it’s important for caregivers to take steps to protect their own health. Managing caregiver stress is essential and benefits both the caregiver and the person under their care. An important first step is recognizing common warning signs, including:
* Denial about the disease and its effect on the person who has been diagnosed.
* Anger at the person with Alzheimer’s or frustration that he or she can’t do the things they used to be able to do.
* Social withdrawal from friends and activities that used to make you feel good.
* Anxiety about the future and facing another day.
* Depression that breaks your spirit and affects your ability to cope.
* Exhaustion that makes it nearly impossible to complete necessary daily tasks.
“It’s normal to feel guilty, angry or even abandoned when someone you care about has Alzheimer’s disease,” Drew says. “It’s so important to recognize these feelings and get the support you need, so you don’t put your own health at risk.”
Stay healthy by managing stress
To help manage caregiver stress, the Alzheimer’s Association offers these suggestions:
* Find time for yourself. It’s normal to need a break from caregiving duties. No one can do it all by themselves. Consider taking advantage of respite care or help from family and friends to spend time doing something you enjoy.
* Become an educated caregiver. Understand the disease, its progression and accompanying behavioral and physical changes. Know resources in your community that can help.
* Build a support network. Organize friends and family who want to help provide care and support. Access local support groups or online communities to connect with other caregivers. If stress becomes overwhelming, seek professional help.
* Take care of yourself. Try to eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest. Making sure that you are healthy can help you be a better caregiver.
* Accept changes. Eventually your loved one will need more intensive kinds of care. Research care options now so you are ready for the changes as they occur.
* Know you’re doing your best. It’s normal to lose patience or feel like your care may fall short sometimes. You’re doing the best you can. For support and encouragement, consider joining an online or in-person support group.
It’s important that caregivers not isolate themselves, Drew said. Help is available.
“No one should go through caring for someone with Alzheimer’s alone and no one has to,” Drew says. “Connecting with other caregivers and support organizations can help you find the information, resources and emotional support needed to help stay physically and emotionally strong so you can take care of yourself while you provide care to others.”
For 10 tips on managing caregiver stress view this infographic. To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and to find resources for caregivers, families and people living with the disease, visit www.alz.org, the website of the Alzheimer’s Association.