Love’s Challenge

Caring for an ill family member can be emotionally and physically wearying.

by Claire Sykes

May 2012

When cries for help jerked Michele Bertamini awake from her nap, she found her elderly mother-in-law on the floor. ER doctors put a sling on Clara’s broken arm, but her fall suddenly threw Bertamini, now 51, of Pasadena, Maryland, into the role of full-time caregiver 15 years ago. “I felt like my life was turned upside down,” she recalls.

The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC, www.caregiving.org) estimates that 65.7 million Americans were caring for a relative in 2008, a number expected to rise as the baby boomers age. Concern for the health of an aging population is increasing. But what about the loved ones, such as Bertamini, who look after them?

The Price of Caring

In a recent Stress in America survey, one-third of all caregivers reported that they spend at least 40 hours a week on care-related tasks. Alzheimer’s caregivers are especially vulnerable; they tend to lug the heaviest loads in terms of caregiving tasks and time, according to the NAC and the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org).

Bertamini has been there. While her husband worked full time, the stay-at-home mom of two sons spent almost nine years planning her days around her mother-in-law’s until Clara died in 2005. Bertamini bathed, dressed and fed her; did her laundry and paid her bills; and drove her to appointments.

Watching a loved one’s health fail makes the process even more painful. “Someone independent for their entire life may now be dependent on his wife or daughter. They may take out their anger on them, show ingratitude and suspicion, and misinterpret the caregiver’s intent. This creates more stress than any one thing,” says Stan Goldberg, PhD, therapist and author of Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers (New World Library).

Who wouldn’t feel overwhelmed? Over half of caregivers do, the Stress in America survey reveals.

Goldberg says, “Constant vigilance is stressful. Or you feel guilty thinking that you’re not doing enough, or wishing this was all over.” Anger, resentment, exhaustion, irritability, anxiety and depression are not uncommon among caregivers.

Burned out from caring for others, many people fail to care for themselves. Responses can include withdrawing socially, giving up hobbies and forgoing vacations, or abusing alcohol or drugs. Caregivers may overeat, skip meals or binge on unhealthful foods.

All that stress and unhealthy living can raise cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight; studies show caregivers run a higher risk of suffering heart disease, stroke, emotional problems and even early death. Caregiving can harm immunity, particularly in people who are older. Research has shown that persistent stress can shorten cell life and accelerate aging’s effects. For people who juggle caregiving with outside employment, missed work time and exhaustion caused by poor sleep may leave them less productive and more mistake-prone. They may turn down promotions, quit jobs or take early retirement, with the resulting financial burden only adding to their stress levels.

“As you become more stressed out, you won’t do as good of a job caring for your loved one,” says Goldberg. “He or she needs you to be as sharp and in shape as you can be.” That makes good self-care paramount.

Coming to Terms

What can you do if you find yourself struggling with caregiver stress? First, accept your emotions—including the negative ones. When you do, you are better able to find the wisdom in them.

Recognize your limitations. “Be the CEO of your own caregiving,” says Alexis Abramson, PhD, author of The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook: Caring for Your Aging Parents Without Losing Yourself (Penguin). “Have a prioritized plan; watch out for those who might take advantage of you because you seem to be caregiving so well.”

Ask for help. Give family members specific tasks, such as food shopping. Learn about your loved one’s illness and attend a support group for it, or for caregivers in general. Read books, like the one Bertamini self-published, called Life With Clara—One Caregiver’s Journey. Turn to social service or charitable organizations for assistance with respite care, chores and errands. (The site www.lotsahelpinghands.com allows you to set up a coordinated support system for you and your loved one.) Talk to your employer about flex time, job sharing and other benefits that can make caretaking easier.

Along the way, vow to eat a better diet, exercise more and find an effective means of stress relief, such as meditation. Nutrients and herbs noted for their stress-fighting abilities include vitamins B and C, the mineral magnesium and the herbs ginseng and rhodiola. In addition, “keep your friendships and continue to feed yourself emotionally, creatively and socially,” says Abramson. And while making practitioner appointments for your loved one, be sure to schedule regular checkups for yourself.

“Most important, don’t lose sight of your relationship with the person,” Abramson adds. “Instead of running around doing things all the time, spend quality time together.”

Bertamini is glad she shared those years with Clara. “With caretaking, you develop a closer bond and deeper love for the person,” she says. “That makes all the sacrifices worth it.”

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