This article will discuss the important topic of caregiver stress. This issue is very important because many of our clients are being cared for by loved ones or are providing that kind of care for others. Sensitivity to the difficulties they face can help all of us provide better service to the elderly and their caregivers.
As the population of elderly people in our country continues to increase, so does the number of adult children who have taken on the responsibility of caring for their aging relatives. According to the Census Bureau, about 1 in 8 Americans were elderly in 1994, but about 1 in 5 will be elderly by the year 2030—and will increasingly require the assistance of loved ones to obtain the care they need.
According to a 6-year study on elderly people caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s Disease, the stress involved with caregiving can negatively impact your health. The study, done at Ohio State University in 2003, found a significant deterioration in the health of caregivers and a 63% higher death rate than the similar group of non-caregivers. The continuous demands placed on an adult child caring for an aging parent can induce illness and depression, limit the effectiveness of the caregiver, and even lead to premature death.
The physiological reaction of our bodies to a real or imaginary threat constitutes stress. When faced with a threat of injury, or even of loss of self-esteem or disruption of our routine, our glands secrete a series of hormones causing a “fight or flight” response. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, and our blood sugar levels and metabolism change to prepare to handle the perceived threat.
This type of response is seen in many caregivers, especially those caring for loved ones with dementia. The unrelenting provision of oversight and physical assistance to a loved one over many weeks or even years will often cause this physiological response to stress. The problem is that the stress response initiated over and over again for a long period of time can have a debilitating effect on the body. This effect is even more pronounced as people age. Over time, the constant chemical stimulus hinders the immune system, resulting in premature aging, sickness and even death.
The Ohio State University study also found that these high levels of stress hormones continued even three years after the caregiving stopped, indicating that the prolonged stress may have permanently impaired the immune system. Finally, the incidence of depression in caregivers is approximately eight times higher than that of the general population.
So what can caregivers do to decrease the stress that can be so harmful? First of all, seek help. Often, those family members burdened with arranging medical care and living arrangements, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and providing meals and household chores are so overwhelmed that they rarely take time to find out what resources are available to them. A number of organizations and private companies will give you advice and guidance, often for free. If your loved one has a very low income, you might get free help from the local Area Agency on Aging.
Another source of advice is the rapidly growing business of non-medical home care companies. Many offer free consultations and also provide paid aides to help you with duties such as bathing, dressing, shopping, household chores, transportation, companionship and more. These people may also help you coordinate adult daycare or respite care to give a caregiver a much-needed break.
Technology can also come to your aid by providing devices to make sure your loved ones are safe while you're away. Emergency alert bracelets and pendants, GPS tracking for wandering, remote video surveillance and other assistive devices can often help disabled people remain safe on their own.
In addition, the free resources of www.longtermcarelink.net are designed to give government provider lists, free care assessments, information and care provider lists for reducing your eldercare burden and the attending stress. The site is a non-commercial source of help. It is the largest and most comprehensive free source of long-term care information on the Internet. Other helpful links include: Area Agency on Aging(http://www.tcoa.org/links.html orhttp://region7aaa.org/whatsnewflash.htmlor http://www.seniorresources.us/services_overview.htm), AARP (http://www.aarp.org), Eldercare Locator(http://www.eldercare.gov), Senior Housing Options(http://www.alternativesforseniors.com), Alzheimer’s Association: Great Lakes Chapter (http://www.alz.org/mglc), National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (http://www.CareManager.org ), and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc. (http://www.naela.com/public/resourcelinks.htm).
Finally, make sure you make plans for the funding of future care arrangements for yourself or your healthy parent. Proper planning of your estate can greatly reduce stress and preserve family relationships should nursing home care or assisted living become necessary. It can extend resources and arrange for the possibility of long-term care insurance, Medicaid or Veteran’s benefits to pay for home care, assisted living, or a nursing home. A properly structured estate plan can also provide for compensation to a family member to help a loved on stay at home as long as possible. If assisted living or a nursing home does become necessary, proper planning can make that transition as stress-free as possible, ensuring that financial stress will not add to the burdens of the over-taxed caregiver. At Heritage Elder Law & Planning, we remain available to assist the elderly, their families, and the senior care community to provide stress-free options when long term illness strikes.