Reducing caregiver stress

read

As a caregiver, you need to take care of yourself. You are the most important person in the life of someone living with dementia. There are things you can do to help maintain your health and well-being.

Senior woman thinking with some concern.

Download our brochure: Reducing caregiver stress (print-friendly version) for more information, or contact your local Alzheimer Society.

The importance of reducing stress

"Fatigue is one of the major things that I see. People reaching the end of the rope in terms of their patience. Some of this is related to fatigue, because if you're constantly tired from being up all night with the person with Alzheimer's disease, how can you possibly be patient with them even though that's what they need?" – Dr. Julie Chandler, a physician in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Caregiver stress is a normal part of dementia caregiving. There are steps you can take to reduce it but first, you must recognize it. The 10 warning signs of caregiver stress (see below) include denial that the person even has the disease, anger at the person with the disease and others, emotional sensitivity, social withdrawal and depression. Symptoms also include lack of sleep, lack of concentration, exhaustion, anxiety and an increase in health problems.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of caregiver stress, it is important to seek help. These are just some of the things caregivers can do to make their lives a bit easier:

  • The person under stress should go to the doctor for regular check-ups.
  • Ask family members and friends for their help and support.
  • Take advantage of community programs that provide respite and relief from caregiving, practical help with meals or housework and assistance with the care of the person with Alzheimer's disease.
  • And plan ahead for both the immediate future and the long term.

The Alzheimer Society can help with services such as support groups, counselling, information resources and MedicAlert® Safely Home®, the Society’s wandering registry. The Alzheimer Society also funds research into improved methods of caregiving and service delivery, as well as research into the cause and cure of Alzheimer's disease.

10 warning signs of stress

Taking care of someone with dementia requires time and energy. It can be a demanding and stressful task. Knowing and recognizing the signs of stress in yourself or someone you care about is the first step toward taking action.

If the following symptoms occur on a regular basis, call your doctor or contact your local Alzheimer Society for help.

  1. Denial about the disease and its effect on the person with the disease.
    "Everyone is overreacting. I know Mom will get better."
  2. Anger at the person with Alzheimer's disease, yourself and others.
    "If he asks me that question once more I will scream!"
  3. Withdrawing socially, you no longer want to stay in touch with friends or participate in activities you once enjoyed.
    "I don't care about getting together with friends anymore."
  4. Anxiety about facing another day and what the future holds.
    "I'm worried about what will happen when I can no longer provide care."
  5. Depression, you feel sad and hopeless much of the time.
    "I don't care anymore. What is wrong with me?"
  6. Exhaustion, you barely have the energy to complete your daily tasks.
    "I don't have the energy to do anything anymore."
  7. Sleeplessness, you wake up in the middle of the night or have nightmares and stressful dreams.
    "I rarely sleep through the night, and don't feel refreshed in the morning."
  8. Emotional reactions, you cry at minor upsets; you are often irritable.
    "I cried when there was no milk for my coffee this morning. Then I yelled at my son."
  9. Lack of concentration, you have trouble focusing and you find it difficult to complete complex tasks.
    "I used to do the daily crossword. Now I am lucky if I can solve half of it."
  10. Health problems, you may lose or gain weight, get sick more often (colds, flu), or develop chronic health problems (backaches, high blood pressure).
    "Since the spring, I have had either a cold or the flu. I just can't seem to shake them."

 

10 tips to reduce stress

  1. Learn about the disease
    Knowing as much as you can about the disease and care strategies will prepare you for the Alzheimer journey. Understanding how the disease affects the person will help you comprehend and adapt to the changes.
  2. Be realistic...about the disease
    It is important, though difficult, to be realistic about the disease and how it will affect the person over time. If you can be realistic, it will be easier for you to adjust your expectations.
  3. Be realistic...about yourself
    You need to be realistic about how much you can do. What do you value most? A walk with the person you are caring for, time by yourself, or a tidy house? There is no "right" answer; only you know what matters most to you and how much you can do.
  4. Accept your feelings
    When caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease, you will have many mixed feelings. In a single day, you may feel contented, angry, guilty, happy, sad, embarrassed, afraid and helpless. These feelings may be confusing. But they are normal. Recognize that you are doing the best you can.
  5. Share information and feelings with others
    Sharing information about the disease with family and friends will help them understand what is happening and better prepare them to provide the help and support you need. It is also important to share your feelings. Find someone with whom you feel comfortable talking about your feelings. This may be a close friend or family member, someone you met at an Alzheimer support group, a member of your religious community, or a health-care professional.
  6. Be positive
    Your attitude can make a difference to the way you feel. Try to look at the positive side of things. Focusing on what the person can do, as opposed to the abilities lost, can make things easier. Try to make every day count. There can still be times that are special and rewarding.
  7. Look for humour
    While Alzheimer's disease is serious, you may find certain situations have a bright side. Maintaining a sense of humour can be a good coping strategy.
  8. Take care of yourself
    Your health is important. Do not ignore it. Eat proper meals and exercise regularly. Find ways to relax and try to get the rest you need. Make regular appointments with your doctor for checkups. You also need to take regular breaks from caregiving. Do not wait until you are too exhausted to plan this. Take time to maintain interests and hobbies. Keep in touch with friends and family so you will not feel lonely and isolated. These things will give you strength to continue providing care.
  9. Get help
    Support: You will need the support that comes from sharing thoughts and feelings with others. This could be individually, with a professional, or as part of an Alzheimer support group. Choose the form of support with which you are most comfortable.
    Practical help: It can be hard to ask for and accept help. But asking for help is not a sign of inadequate caregiving. You cannot care for a person with Alzheimer's disease alone. Ask family and friends for help. Most people will be willing to assist you. There may also be programs in your community that offer assistance with household chores or caregiving tasks. Your local Alzheimer Society can help you access these.
  10. Plan for the future
    Planning for the future can help relieve stress. While the person with Alzheimer's disease is still capable, review his or her financial situation and plan accordingly. Choices relating to future health and personal care decisions should be considered and recorded. Legal and estate planning should also be discussed. As well, think about an alternate caregiving plan in the event that you are unable to provide care in the future.

Caregiver stress checklist

How are you doing?

As Alzheimer's disease progresses, a person's abilities change. Eventually, full-time care will be needed. The person will require help with everyday activities, including bathing, dressing, eating and using the bathroom. Providing this daily support can be exhausting. When considering how best to meet the needs of the person with dementia, it is important to think about what's best for the person while also evaluating the impact that caregiving is having on your own well-being.

Experiencing some stress is part of everyday life. However, when symptoms of stress persist, they can be harmful. The following checklist from The Alzheimer Journey: At the Crossroads, may help you identify how stress is affecting your life. Place a checkmark to indicate how often you experience these symptoms of stress.

Caregiver Stress Checklist

Never

Sometimes

Often

Loss of sleep

  • Are you experiencing difficulty getting to sleep?
  • Do you wake up in the middle of the night?
  • Do you have stressful dreams? 
     

Personal health

  • Have you gained/lost weight recently without intending to?
  • Do you get ill more often than you used to?
  • Have you developed chronic health problems (e.g., backache, headaches, high blood pressure)? 
     

Emotional health

  • Do minor upsets make you cry, angry or unusually irritated?
  • Are you having difficulty controlling your temper?
  • Do you feel pressure to hold things together?
  • Are you feeling hopeless about your current situation?
     

Loss of interests

  • Have you given up hobbies or interests that you once enjoyed?
  • Are you spending less time with others? 
     

If you answered "sometimes" or "often" to many of the questions above, you may need to seek help to care for yourself. Even with the help of support services, providing care to a person with Alzheimer's disease can be overwhelming. No matter how close you may be to the person, you may want to consider including others in the caregiving role.

Looking after yourself

Providing care for someone living with dementia takes a tremendous toll on the physical and emotional health of the primary caregiver, yet many caregivers often don't recognize the warning signs, or deny its effects on their health.

Learn more
Young woman holding toy heart.