How Caring for a Loved One Who Has Alzheimer’s Leads to Your Own Decline

If you’re feeling overwhelmed while caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you are not alone. 

An estimated 15 million Americans are providing unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer's disease, or other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

And while you may have the best intentions for your loved one, the reality is that it’s just extremely taxing work. Just over one-third of caregivers report that their own health has declined since they began caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's.

In fact, you are considered the invisible second patient of the irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

Acknowledging the stress that comes with caring for someone with Alzheimer's and its manifestations is the critical first step toward not only helping you maintain your own physical, financial and emotional health, but also providing more robust and meaningful care to your loved one.

What Stress Does to You

Studies show that caregiving can negatively impact your relationships, your ability to effectively toggle work and life demands and can increase your risk of a variety of illnesses.

Consider just some of the statistics:

  • Increased levels of depression: Studies show that 30 to 40 percent of dementia caregivers suffer from depression and emotional stress. And depressed caregivers are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, substance abuse and chronic disease. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal
  • found the high levels of depression and anxiety remain and can increase when a loved one is put in a nursing home.
  • Increased levels of frustration: More than one-fifth of caregivers are exhausted when they go to bed at night, and many feel they cannot handle all their caregiving responsibilities. Those experiencing chronic stress may be at greater risk of loss in short-term memory and attention.
  • Increased risk of decline in physical health: About 1 in 10 caregivers say their physical health has declined since they started taking care of a loved one, with many neglecting their own health care needs.
  • Caregivers have higher incidences of heart disease and a decreased ability to fight their own colds and flu.

For women, who make up about two-thirds of caregivers, the statistics are even more troubling. In general, they are even more depressed and anxious, and report their physical health and satisfaction with life and their well-being is lower than men who provide care. 

Impact on Care

When caregivers are sick, depressed, anxious and angry, their ailments naturally affect their ability to provide care for their loved one, despite their best efforts.

In fact, family caregivers are at higher risk to lose patience than those who don't provide care.

A National Institutes of Health study even found that spousal caregivers caring for a spouse with significant cognitive impairment and/or physical care needs are more likely to experience feelings of anger and resentment.

Caregiver burnout is normal. Watching your loved one's health deteriorate as the disease advances is challenging even for the most resilient. Providing care during that time often seems like a thankless task, especially as your loved one's memory decreases and needs increase. 

That is why it is vital to recognize some of the signs of burnout: anger, exhaustion, denial, sleeplessness, anxiety, isolation, withdrawal from social functions and friends, difficulty concentrating and declines in your own health. 

Finding Relief: Practice the Three Rs

Making time for your physical and mental health is not only healthy for you, but it is good medicine for your loved one. 

Remember to practice the three Rs:

  • Rest
  • Relax
  • Recharge

How to spot your own burnout

Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress or burnout can come in many forms.

Think STOP to assess if you are in the midst of burnout and need to take some time to re-energize yourself. Reach out to your doctor or seek a friend or an in-home professional caregiver for help.

S: Sad — Are you feeling lonely, isolated?  "I just don't care anymore."

T: Tired — Are you physically and or emotionally exhausted? "I'm too tired for this."

O: Over-reacting — Do little things "get to you" and make you lash out? "Leave me alone!"

P: Pain — Don't ignore stress headaches or a mental and physical fatigue. Sometimes your body will let you know when you need respite.

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