Caregiver Stress Could Affect Most Americans At One Point In Their Life

Research shows caregiving puts individuals at greater risk for serious health issues

DAYTON, Ohio (June 19, 2013) – Most Americans will be informal caregivers to a loved one at some point in their life, and with that responsibility will come stress that could have a significant impact on their overall health, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“Caregivers for those with dementia or other behavioral problems can encounter fatigue, frustration or the stress of making decisions for the patient themselves if they are not cognizant enough,” said Anoopa Hodges, DO, a Premier HealthNet physician who practices at Oakwood Primary Care. “The caregivers own health can decline as a result.”

A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need. Often people who receive care have health conditions such as dementia, cancer, or a brain injury – all of which leave them unable to perform basic daily tasks. Those who provide care without being paid are known as informal caregivers. The most common informal caregiving relationship is an adult child caring for an elderly parent, according to HHS.

It is estimated that there are 44 million Americans – or 21 percent of the country’s population – who provide unpaid care to an elderly or disabled person 18 years or older. Sixty-one percent of caregivers are women and nearly 60 percent have to balance a full-time job outside of providing care to someone they love, HHS reports.

Providing informal care can have a noticeable impact on a caregiver’s health and is often known as “caregiver stress.” This type of stress can take on many different forms such as feeling frustrated and angry about taking care of someone with dementia who often wanders away, feeling guilty for not providing better care, feeling lonely because caregiving eliminates socialization, and simply feeling exhausted. Caregiver stress appears to affect women more than men. About 75 percent of caregivers who report feeling very strained emotionally, physically or financially are female, according to research by HHS.

“I have taken care of both the adult child and the elderly parent and I have seen where (the caregiver’s) own health has declined because they are not able to take breaks – perhaps get enough nutrition or exercise for themselves – and, as a result, it can make existing health conditions worse or other health problems can become new issues,” Dr. Hodges said.

Research has shown that while most caregivers are in good health, it is not uncommon for them to experience serious health problems such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, higher levels of stress hormones, a weaker immune system and higher levels of obesity. Dr. Hodges said family support is a key player in alleviating stress. If a caregiver is part of a family support system that helps share the load, the stress seems to be less intense. Those who do not have such a network or who still feel overwhelmed should look to outside help. Dr. Hodges often points patients to the local Area Agency on Aging.

“They are very helpful and can help point people in the right direction in terms of the assistance that is out there,” Dr. Hodges said. “The other thing I would recommend is before it gets too late, too overwhelming or too cumbersome is for the caregiver to address their concerns with a primary care physician so that they can help guide them with the help that is needed.” 

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