For all the dollars that go into researching effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there’s a huge subset of people deeply immersed in these communities that are often forgotten—the caregivers.
While caregiving is an act of love and devotion that’s done with the best of intentions, there’s no denying that it is physically and emotionally draining and has the capacity to destroy the health of the caregiver if not properly managed.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are among the most common caregiver difficulties. One study that investigated specific factors associated with caregiver burden concluded that the greater the patient’s limitations, the higher the chances of increased stress on caregivers. And by some estimates, between 40-70 percent of caregivers have depression, with one-quarter to one-half of these people experiencing symptoms consistent with major depression.1-2 This is so sad because these folks are incredible heroes who find themselves in extremely challenging situations.
While the emotional aspects of caregiving are fairly obvious, only recently have we really begun to understand and acknowledge the enormous toll caregiving has on physical health.
Research indicates that the levels of stress hormones in caregivers (particularly of Alzheimer’s patients) are 23 percent higher than non-caregivers, and their immune responses are 15 percent lower.3
Elevated stress hormones like cortisol lead to a host of physical health issues, including weight gain, weakened immunity, and most notably, higher inflammation. And inflammation in and of itself increases the risk of virtually every chronic and deadly condition, including heart disease and cancer.
One study out of Spain found that 46 percent of caregivers suffered from health complications as a result of this selfless act—and the greater the patient’s dependency, the higher the probability of caregiver health concerns. These researchers stated that, in the case of caring for a greatly dependent person, the probability of suffering from health-related problems is 22 percent higher.4
How to Care for Yourself While Caring for Others
Caregiving is an overwhelming job. Managing the highs and lows, as well as your own physical and mental health, isn’t always easy. But here are some things you can do to help:
- Don’t be an island. Caregivers often think they can—or should—do it all. But shouldering the entire burden on your own can get extremely taxing. Enlist the help of others, such as siblings, other family members, or friends. Also look into and take advantage of low-cost or free community resources, including adult day care centers, home health aides, respite care, meal delivery, and transportation services. Eldercare Locator is a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging that can help identify such resources in your area.
- Nourish your spirituality. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to connect with God through an organized religion, like attending church or temple, or through meditation, yoga, or daily walks in the park: Studies show that a strong spiritual foundation improves caregivers’ coping skills and promotes better physical and mental health.5
- Seek out support groups. Support groups allow you to connect with people in very similar situations. They help you realize you are not alone in this journey. You can share your frustrations in a nonjudgmental environment, receive encouragement when you need it most, exchange important information and advice, and learn about new resources you may not have known existed.
- Exercise. As I have discussed in many e-letters, physical activity is a potent stress reducer and disease fighter, but it is particularly important for the caregiver. Be sure to take at least 30 minutes every day to get away. Go for a walk or jog, work out at the gym, take an exercise class, or participate in any activity that brings you joy and a sense of release.
I want to end this letter by personally saying thank you and God bless you to all the caregiver heroes out there. Your honor and sacrifice of providing a safe, nurturing environment for a loved one is extraordinary. But you must also take care of yourself! By finding the right balance and support for yourself, you will be able to provide better and more joyful care without destroying you own health.
- Family Caregiver Alliance. caregiver.org/caregiver-health
- Dauphinot V, et al. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;44(3):907-16.
- Vitaliano PP, et al. Psychol Bull. 2003 Nov;129(6):946-72.
- Pena-Longobardo LM, Oliva-Moreno J. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;43(4):1293-302.
- Weaver AJ, Flannelly KJ. South Med J. 2004 Dec;97(12):1210-4.