Caregiver stress: when it gets to be too much

Caregiver stress: when it gets to be too much

MetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services, is coordinated by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest with support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey; CARES brings together professionals and lay leaders from MetroWest agencies that provide services to older adults. Each month, a MetroWest CARES agency presents an educational column on an eldercare issue. This month’s article on caregiver stress is presented by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, which provides comprehensive services to older adults and their families, including counseling, help with transitions, and referrals. Lee A. Dagger, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at JFS and specializes in the needs of this age group.

Most Americans will be informal caregivers at some point during their lives. According to the Source for Women’s Health Information, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during any given year, over 44 million Americans provide unpaid care to an elderly or disabled person 18 years or older. The most common type of this informal caregiving relationship is an adult child caring for an elderly parent, although it could also be adults caring for other relatives, spouses caring for elderly husbands or wives, middle-aged parents caring for severely disabled children, or adults caring for friends or neighbors. Altogether these informal caregivers provide 80 percent of long-term care in the United States. They tend to be women (estimated 61 percent), people in middle age or older, and employed in addition to caring for another person (59 percent).

What is caregiver stress?

Caregiver stress is the physical and emotional strain of caregiving. It is the reaction we have when we give up our needs to take care of the needs of others. It is something that most of us are not aware of when we are going through a caregiving experience, particularly when it is a parent whose needs are increasing. Typical signs are exhaustion at the end of the day, resentment and frustration which can reveal that we are over-doing, loneliness because our own social life has suffered from the time spent caregiving, and guilt because we think we could do a better job despite all the other things we have to do.

Although caregiving has many intrinsic rewards, such as appreciating life more as a result of the caregiving experience and the satisfaction of truly contributing to a loved one’s well-being, research is showing that caregivers are much more likely to have health problems than non-caregivers. Women caregivers in particular are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, forego regular preventive healthcare, such as medical appointments, and perhaps even die earlier than non-caregivers.

What can we do?

The first step is become aware that this stress is taking its toll and that we have an obligation to tend to ourselves also. Many people are so focused on the other person or the parent that they disregard the signs that the body is sending that tell them that burnout is occurring.

They can also feel guilty paying attention to themselves when someone else’s suffering and needs seem so much greater. The truth is that we cannot sustain caring for someone else when it is at our expense, and at the very least, the quality of our caring is compromised when we are exhausted. It is like the oxygen mask on an airline: one must put on their own mask first in order to then help their child. We must tend to our own well-being and listen to the warning signs that tell us when this is compromised before we can take on the needs of another. The greater the loved one’s needs, the more self-care is needed. Self-care is not being selfish; it is about treating ourselves with the same compassion we show to others.

The next step is to address the stress. In general, people who take a problem-solving approach are less likely to feel stressed than those who react by worrying or feeling helpless. Some important tips are:

  • Ask for and accept help.
  • Say no to requests that are draining.
  • Do not feel guilty: Just like there is no perfect parent, there is no perfect caregiver. Remind yourself of that.
  • Identify what you can and cannot change: You cannot change someone else but you can change your reaction to their behavior. If something is predictably upsetting, get help to change your reaction or perspective.
  • Join a support group.

How a JFS support group can help

JFS can help in several important ways. First, when the older adult’s needs are changing and the adult child is being asked to take on some caregiver responsibilities, JFS can assist older adults and their families by assessing needs and identifying the best services and resources that meet those needs.

Second, in the case where a parent lives in a different area from the adult child, JFS can provide long-term follow-up care with the older adult and keep the family up to date. Or if a family member would like to just talk to someone knowledgeable about resources in the area for older adults, an in-office consultation can be scheduled. Finally, for ongoing support, JFS can provide counseling to caregivers. Just talking about one’s situation with an empathetic person can provide relief, offer perspective, and assist with the complex emotions that come when generations exchange roles and responsibilities.

Families and caregivers needing answers to broader eldercare questions can contact Elderlink at JFS — a portal to all MetroWest services for older adults and their families. Elderlink can be reached at 973-765-9050, or via e-mail at

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