Coping with Caregiver Stress and Alzheimer’s
There is little doubt that the stress of chronic caregiving to a spouse or family member has significant adverse effects on health and longevity. Studies suggest that many of these problems are due to disruption of immune system function, as well as increased inflammation and depression. Such individuals have weaker immune responses to vaccines, increased susceptibility to infection and delayed wound healing. Inflammation is a normal response to injury and stress that is triggered by the production of chemicals like interleukin-6. However, too much inflammation has been implicated in several age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease. One study of men and women serving as caregivers to spouses with Alzheimer’s disease found that they had a fourfold annual increase interleukin-6 levels compared to age-matched controls without such responsibilities. What is particularly disturbing is that even when caregiving ceased due to the death of a spouse, increased interleukin-6 levels persisted for years, and this could accelerate the aging process.
In one study, senior citizens who felt stressed out from taking care of their disabled spouses were 63 percent more likely to die within 4 years than caregivers without this complaint. In another that focused on telomere research, spouses and children who provided such constant care shortened their lives by as much as four to eight years. Caregivers also had double the rate of severe depression and prior research has shown that this can increase the risk of death by as much as four times when compared with non-depressed controls.
Some of the early warning signs of caregiver stress are:
- feeling overwhelmed, lonely, guilty, sad or constantly worried
- feeling fatigued most of the time
- becoming easily irritated or angered
- lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
- a significant change in weight or sleep habits
- frequent headaches, neck or low back pain
- abuse of alcohol or drugs
- Some tips on how to reduce caregiver stress include:
- Identify what you can and cannot change. You may not be able to alter the way somebody else behaves but you can change the way that you react to it.
- Make a list of your top priorities and establish a daily routine.
- Set realistic goals by breaking large tasks into smaller ones that you can do individually when you have time.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for and to accept assistance and make a list of things that others could help with. Let them choose what is best for them, such as assisting with meals, shopping for groceries, relieving you for a few hours, or taking the patient for a walk once or twice a week.
- Try to lighten your load by learning about local caregiving resources such as meal delivery, home health care services (nursing, physical therapy), nonmedical assistance (housekeeping, cooking, companionship) or home modification changes that make it easier for patients to bathe, use the toilet or move around.
- If you need financial help taking care of a relative, don’t be afraid to ask family members to contribute their fair share.
- Stay in touch with family and friends but say “no” to requests that you no longer can easily handle, such as hosting holiday meals.
- Social support is a powerful stress buster, and in addition to family and friends, there may be a support group for caregivers in your situation. Joining may allow you to make new friends and also pick up useful tips from others who have had similar problems. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging for information.
- Try to find time to be physically active as much as possible, get enough sleep and eat properly.
- Make time each week to do something that you enjoy and can look forward to, such as shopping or seeing a movie.
- If your loved one is not bedridden and does not have dementia, there are emergency response systems (button on a necklace, bracelet or belt that they wear) that can alert medical personnel and you. You can use an intercom system to hear someone in another room, or a Webcam video camera that can see them. Mobility monitors can keep track of dementia patients who wear a transmitter strapped to an ankle or wrist that will alert you when they are out of range.
- Don’t automatically assume that any new symptoms or an increase in previous ones are automatically due to stress and always consult a physician in such instances. People who take an active, problem-solving approach to any caregiving issue are much less likely to feel stressed than those who react by worrying or feeling helpless.