As our population ages, and as more Veterans return home from service, many of us will become caregivers. The Office on Women’s Health finds most Americans will be informal caregivers at some point during their lives.
A caregiver is considered an unpaid individual, such as a spouse, parent, relative, partner or friend, who provides care for someone with an illness, injury or disability. A caregiver’s job can include helping with daily activities such as dressing, bathing, eating, taking medicine and arranging activities, as well as tasks such as making health decisions, managing finances and more.
Caregivers are often so busy caring for the needs of others that they end up neglecting their own emotional, mental and physical health and well-being.
It can be deeply gratifying to care for a loved one when it’s needed most. It allows you to spend time together and may strengthen your relationship. But no matter how rewarding the work is, caregiving can be physically and emotionally exhausting. You’re on call for most of the day, so you may have little time for yourself. You may feel overwhelmed by a job you weren’t trained for or saddened by how your relationship with your loved one has changed. All of this can lead to caregiver stress and burnout.
The Veteran community is strong, but even the most resilient people can suffer from caregiver stress and burnout. Caregivers are often so busy caring for the needs of others that they end up neglecting their own emotional, mental and physical health and well-being. It’s time to put a spotlight on this and learn more about caregiver stress, how to prevent it and what resources are available to help.
Signs and Symptoms
According to the Office on Women’s Health, caregiver stress comes from the physical and emotional strain of caregiving. Maybe you’re tired all the time or anxious about the health of your loved one. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re being supported. This can all lead to caregiver burnout, which is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.
It’s natural to feel stressed out and tired after a long or difficult day, but when you’re experiencing caregiver stress and burnout, those feelings may persist. Signs to watch out for include:
- Feeling overwhelmed or anxious
- Feeling mentally and physically exhausted
- Feeling alone, isolated or withdrawn from others
- Becoming angry or irritated quickly
- Having trouble sleeping
- Getting frequent headaches
- Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
- Feeling sad, depressed, hopeless or helpless
- Getting sick more often
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
Impact on Health and Wellness
When we’re exposed to high levels of stress, it impacts our health in negative ways. Stress can lead to increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels and increased inflammation in our bodies. According to the Office on Women’s Health, caregivers can face a lot of physical and mental effects from caregiving, including:
- Depression and anxiety
- Weakened immune systems
- Higher rates for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers
Tips to Manage Caregiver Stress
- Accept help. Make a list of ways the people around you can help. For example, is there a neighbor who can take your place for a bit while you run errands? Is there a friend who can help you make meals throughout the week?
- Take care of your health. It isn’t beneficial to lose your own health while caring for someone else’s. Getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, finding time to exercise and addressing your own health care needs are all important ways to keep yourself healthy and ready for the demands of caregiving. Check in with your health care provider, explain your role as a caregiver and make sure you stay up to date on medications, preventive care and screenings you need to stay healthy.
- Make time for yourself. It’s easy to forget about your own needs when you’re so invested in caring for someone else, but it’s important to find ways to relax and recharge. Make time for things you enjoy, even if it’s just a quick walk with a friend, a warm bath or some time to go shopping.
- Practice mindfulness strategies. According to the National Institutes of Health, more and more studies show the importance of mindfulness as a way to reduce anxiety and stress levels. Start your day with some deep breathing work, find time for a quick meditation during the afternoon or take a quiet walk in the evening. Mindfulness and Meditation: An Easy Guide for Getting Started offers some additional tips to incorporate this into your daily routine.
- Keep learning. Many organizations offer classes to help you learn to better care for someone with an injury or illness. Or find someone in a support group who has an idea you haven’t thought of. Even just reading up on the illness or injury can help you understand more about what your loved one is going through.
- Don’t beat yourself up. No one is perfect. There will be days you feel like you’ve failed, days when you get angry (and then feel guilty about being angry) and days you just don’t feel up for the task. It’s OK. Remember you’re doing the best you can.
- Get connected. Caregiving can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out the resources below and consider some of the following ideas:
- Respite care or adult day care – These services can give you a break from your duties and a chance to do something for yourself. For example, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation offers Respite Relief for Military and Veteran Caregivers, which offers family caregivers access to free, short-term relief with the help of in-home care professionals.
- Support groups – This may give you a way to share stories, pick up tips, learn about new resources or just feel like someone understands what you’re going through.
- Other resources – Ask yourself what kinds of help would be most beneficial to you. Maybe it’s transportation services, home health care services or meal delivery. If you work outside the home, maybe it’s a break from your job under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Explore what’s out there.
- Seek professional help. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or turning to substances to help manage your stress, it may be time to see someone who can help. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a wide range of mental health services to help you get the support you deserve.
- VA’s Caregiver Support Program offers education, resources, support and services to eligible caregivers. There’s a lot to explore, but here are some highlights:
- A Caregiver Support Program Team is located at every VA facility to help you find support and enroll in helpful programs and services. Search the directory to find local support. The team can also help you determine if you qualify for the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
- The Caregiver Support Program can connect you to respite care, peer support mentoring, skills training, mental health counseling and so much more. Check out a wide range of resources.
- Dear Fellow Caregiver is a blog designed for caregivers to share their stories and describe the resources they’ve found helpful.
- VA also offers a list of community resources that may be helpful, such as the Rosalynn Carter Institute’s Operation Family Caregiver Program, the Unspoken Heroes Program and many more.
- The Elizabeth Dole Foundation offers comprehensive case management support, assistance with applying for benefits and several programs designed for those caring for wounded, ill or injured Veterans or Service members. The foundation’s programs include respite help at home, Hidden Helpers, Hidden Heroes and more.
- The National Eldercare Locator, a service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, can help you locate services and resources in your community and offers helpful information on frequently asked caregiver questions.
- The Office on Women’s Health has an entire page dedicated to caregiver stress, answering many of the questions you may have about it.
It’s important to remember that you’re a better caregiver to others when you take care of yourself too!