Since Jeanne Erdmann's mother was diagnosed three years ago with dementia, she has taken on the daily responsibilities of bathing and dressing her mom, preparing her meals, making sure she takes her medicine, and managing her finances.
"It wears you down. I think it's the grind of having someone there every day who needs more and more attention," says Erdmann, a medical journalist in Wentzville, Mo. Although she says she's happy to be there for her mom, Erdmann acknowledges the toll caregiving takes.
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Caring for a friend or family member who is chronically ill, disabled, or aging can be emotionally and physically demanding. More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for a person with Alzheimer's or dementia.
Those caregivers, who are predominantly middle-aged women, spend an average of 20 hours per week on caregiving responsibilities, a commitment that interferes with work and can lead to health problems. "The stress they are under is so tremendous, they tend to get sick," says Jo McCord, MA, family consultant with the nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance. "Caregivers go to the doctor so often with the care receiver that they are simply too tired to go to the doctor for themselves."
Caregivers who reach out for help can tap into information and resources to make their jobs less stressful. Yet the challenges of caregiving are often compounded by caregivers' tendency to become isolated, McCord says. "There's a lot of need for emotional support that goes unmet."
Finding Emotional Support
Support groups and classes, either in person or online, give caregivers a forum where they can connect with others going through the same experience. They're also a great way to learn about legal, financial, and medical resources needed to best care for someone.
Although guilt comes with the caregiving territory, it's one emotion worth brushing aside. "Caregivers often feel they can't enjoy themselves because the person they're caring for is compromised," McCord says. But when caregivers fail to keep in touch with personal interests and friends, they lose connections they need more than ever.
Erdmann still tries to find ways to let off steam. "We laugh a lot. You have to find the humor and just hold on to the good times as long as you can."
Reducing Caregiver Stress
McCord offers these tips on easing some of the stress of caregiving.
Call a family meeting. Prevent strained family relationships by keeping all members informed about a loved one's condition. Bring in an outsider, such as a social worker, counselor, religious leader, or friend, to help smooth over contentious situations.
Dole out tasks. McCord says caregivers often feel they need to go it alone. But don't assume friends and family aren't willing to help. "Make it easier by giving them something specific to do," she says.
Get outside help. National, state, and local disease-specific organizations can put you in touch with day respite programs and in-home services that provide a much-needed break for caregivers. You can also hire a care manager, a professional who helps families plan and coordinate care. Call your local caregiver resource center, area agency on aging, senior center, or other community resource.
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