Much has been written about the need for family caregivers to protect their own health, and for good reason. Caregivers are more likely than their non-caregiving peers to experience a wide range of health issues. These include back problems, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Memory and Aging Center (MAC) discovered another important reason to make self-care a priority for one specific type of caregiver. Their study revealed that when health declines for the caregiver of someone with a neurodegenerative disease, it can put the care recipient at greater risk for earlier mortality.
As Alzheimer’s Awareness Month draws to a close, we’re examining this study and giving some tips for these caregivers to relieve stress.
How a Family Caregiver’s Mental Health Can Impact Patient Care
Caring for an adult with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s can be mentally and physically exhausting. Coping with safety and behavioral issues like wandering can leave a family caregiver tremendously stressed. Over time, that stress can lead to serious mental health issues.
Researchers say that caregivers are four times more likely to experience depression, and three times more likely to seek medical treatment for anxiety.
To see how this type of mental health decline can impact patient care, researchers recruited 176 patient–caregiver partners to participate in a study between 2007 and 2012. Unless they dropped out, participants were followed by researchers until the time of the patient’s death. Throughout the study, caregivers used two different methods—the Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form Survey (SF-36) and the Symptom Checklist-90 Revised (SCL-90-R)—to measure their mental health.
Researchers found the worse a caregiver’s mental health, the greater the care recipient’s risk of mortality, even after accounting for known risk factors such as age, sex, and stage of the disease. The bottom line is caregiver mental health needs to be a priority.
4 Ways to Practice Healthy Self-Care While Caregiving
- Accept that everyone has limitations: No caregiver can do it all. Make peace with the idea that you need help and will need to take breaks to make the process go more smoothly. Respite care at a memory care community is one option to consider. Other options to explore are friendly visitor programs organized by volunteers from local churches and synagogues, Alzheimer’s day centers, and in-home caregiving.
- Set realistic expectations: Make time to think about your priorities in life. Write those priorities down and use the list to set realistic expectations for what you do each day. While a perfectly maintained home may have been a priority in pre-caregiving days, it probably isn’t realistic when you are a caregiver. Decide what is truly most important to you and let that be your guide each day.
- Explore local resources: Learning more about your local senior care resources before you need them is another way you can take care of yourself while caregiving. Your local agency on aging might be your best avenue for determining what types of support are available nearby. For example, these agencies often maintain lists of contractors with experience building ramps or modifying doorways.
- Prioritize a healthy lifestyle: Sleep, exercise, stress management, and a well-balanced diet are all necessary for living a healthier life. Unfortunately, these things often become low priorities when a caregiver is busy. Make a commitment to yourself to set goals for getting your life on a healthier track month-by-month.
For more ideas, we suggest visiting our Caregiver Resources page. Here you’ll find information on topics ranging from how to connect with a caregiver support group to finding balance while caregiving.