Caregiver Syndrome: How to Support Yourself
While Caring for a Sick Loved One
Have you taken on caregiving responsibilities for your aging or seriously ill loved one?
Does your life seem stressful and your workload unmanageable?
Whether an aging parent or a loved one with cancer, caring for those you love can take a toll on your health.
Do you feel frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed, or unhappy?
Have you noticed your physical health declining?
If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing an increasingly common yet relatively unknown condition known as "caregiver syndrome." As one of the many Americans who choose to provide support and care for an aging or seriously ill loved one, you are vulnerable to increased stress levels and the emotional and physical symptoms that can result.
What is Caregiver Syndrome?
As Andree LeRoy, M.D. reported for CNN.com/health, caregiver syndrome is a condition that can result from the stress of full-time or long-term caregiving. As the numbers of cases are increasing, the medical community is beginning to acknowledge the risks and symptoms of caregiving syndrome. As LeRoy reported, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jean Posner defines caregiver syndrome as "a debilitating condition brought on by unrelieved, constant caring for a person with a chronic illness or dementia."
A major cause of caregiver syndrome is the heavy workload caregivers may take on. The stress also stems from grief, as caregivers experience a loved one's declining health. According to LeRoy, the shift from a partnership to a caregiver-patient dynamic can be very difficult, and in reaction the caregiver may experience shock. Thus, the changing role-relationship with the seriously ill loved one can trigger the onset of caregiver syndrome.
Symptoms of Caregiver Syndrome
Major symptoms of caregiver syndrome include:
Peter Vitaliano, geriatric psychiatrist and expert on caregiving, said in LeRoy's report that caring for someone long-term may lead to chronic stress. In fact, the stress hormone levels associated with caregiver syndrome are similar to the levels associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Vitaliano, this chronic stress begins to trigger physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and weakening of the immune system. In fact, Vitaliano said, "in severe cases, caregivers can take on the symptoms of the person that they care for ... For example, a person caring for someone with dementia may develop progressive memory loss."
If you are elderly, the dangers of untreated caregiver syndrome are even more serious: researchers have shown that among elderly people, caregivers have a 63% higher risk of death than noncaregivers.
In some cases caregivers can even take on the symptoms of the person they care for.
Many Cases Remain Unacknowledged and Untreated
If you feel that you may be experiencing the symptoms of caregiver syndrome but are not sure where to turn, you're not alone. Many people suffering from caregiver syndrome don't realize that the condition exists, and so their symptoms remain unacknowledged and untreated.
Caregiver syndrome not only affects you, but also your loved one: if you are struggling with exhaustion, depression, or anxiety, it will not be easy to continue with your caretaking responsibilities. Read on for tips on how to prevent the onset of caregiver syndrome, and what to do if you're already experiencing the symptoms.
How to Support Yourself When Caring For a Sick Loved One
- Remember Why You Are Caregiving
Don't see the caregiver-patient relationship as one-way -- remember the ways that your loved one has enriched your life. If you see caregiving as a burden, you will be more likely to become frustrated and stressed. However, if you remind yourself how much your loved one means to you, and how important it is for her or him to be taken care of, your sense of purpose may feel renewed.
- Do Self-Check-Ins
Since the caregiving role is so focused on helping someone else, caregivers can tend to spend little time on their own self-care.
And if you're not monitoring your overall health, your doctor may not be either. According to LeRoy, "A survey in the American Academy of Family Physicians found that fewer than half of caregivers were asked by their doctors whether they had caregiver stress."
Since many physicians do not address the issue of caregiver stress, it's important to be aware of the symptoms. Be sure to monitor your emotions, stress levels, and physical health, to detect whether you are experiencing caregiver syndrome. The first step is to acknowledge it.
- Ask for Assistance With Your Workload
Are you taking on more than a reasonable amount of work? A major source of the chronic stress associated with caregiver syndrome is the workload that caregiving involves. Don't push yourself to the point of exhaustion! Be sure that you're not taking on more than you can handle, and see if you can delegate some tasks to other friends or family members who would be willing to help out.
- Talk to Your Doctor
If you feel that you are experiencing symptoms of caregiver syndrome, talk to your doctor about being screened for stress and depression.
Natural Tips to Treat the Symptoms of Caregiver Syndrome
Try these proven mood-boosting and stress-relieving techniques to prevent and alleviate symptoms such as stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and depression.
Utilize Caregiving Support Systems
It's important to educate yourself about the many aspects of caregiving, including caregiver syndrome. Use caregiver support systems for answers to questions you may have, as well as helpful advice and support. According to LeRoy, experts say that "educating caregivers can significantly decrease the occurrence of this syndrome." Take advantage of these educational and supportive resources:
Again, if you feel that you're experiencing caretaker syndrome be sure to talk to your doctor about what you're experiencing. Caring for a loved one doesn't have to mean that your own well-being is compromised. You're doing a great thing in being a caregiver -- remember to take care of yourself, too!
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