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Managing Caregiver Stress

The experience of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can be as varied as the caregivers themselves. However, with the progressive, degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s and related dementias, caregiver stress is a very real concern. Many caregivers will feel overwhelmed and may experience anxiety, burnout, and a unique kind of grief called ambiguous loss, which is a feeling of loss that has no predictable ending or closure.

Our compassionate teams at Banner’s three specialty memory care centers of excellence understand the unique challenges of filling the caregiver role for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and we’re here to support you. From helping you recognize that your feelings of sadness, frustration, guilt and even anger are normal, to providing you with resources for managing them, the caring support team at Banner Health is by your side to help you and your loved one navigate the journey together.

7 Symptoms of Caregiver Stress

While it’s normal to experience stress as you care for your loved one, no two people experience caregiver strain in the exact same way. Recognizing your feelings and emotions as symptoms of caregiver stress is the first step in protecting your own health and wellbeing. Symptoms of caregiver stress include:

  1. Denial or an unwillingness to accept the diagnosis: Coming to terms with a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the impact it will have as the disease progresses can take time. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to experience denial by rationalizing new behaviors as normal reactions to stress or fatigue or by ignoring signs of Alzheimer’s.
  2. Feelings of anger, resentment or frustration: Feelings of anger toward your loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or frustration that they are unable to do what they once could are normal. It’s also not uncommon to experience irritability and mood swings that cause negative reactions to others, like lashing out at others.
  3. Anxiety and depression: Grappling with the uncertainty of a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis can lead to feeling unsure or even fearful about what the future holds as the disease advances. These feelings may give way to despair and depression as they interfere with the ability to cope and work through the normal grieving process.
  4. Becoming withdrawn: Being thrust into a caregiver role can be an isolating experience. The weight of responsibility can lead to disengaging from normally enjoyable activities and pulling away from friends and family.
  5. Difficulty sleeping or physical exhaustion: Constant worry about the future and concerns about how your loved one’s needs will change as the disease progresses can lead to insomnia. Sleeplessness causes exhaustion that can make it difficult or impossible to complete necessary daily tasks, such as household chores or cooking.
  6. Mental fatigue: The new set of considerations and questions an Alzheimer’s diagnosis represents can be a significant distraction for caregivers, making it difficult to concentrate, do familiar tasks or remember appointments.
  7. New or worsening health problems: If left unchecked, caregiver stress can take a physical and mental toll that leads to health problems.

How to Manage Caregiver Stress

Just as your loved one’s needs will evolve as they advance through the different stages of Alzheimer’s disease, your role as a caregiver continues to change, too. Give yourself permission to take care of you. The following recommendations can help you manage your stress level and protect your health and wellbeing:

  1. Take care of your own health needs: Get a good night’s rest, eat a balanced, healthy diet and implement regular exercise. If you are experiencing symptoms of caregiver stress or any other recent changes to your health, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor to get the help you need.
  2. Visit the doctor regularly: Staying up to date on annual physical checkups and vaccinations and visiting the doctor for unexpected illness or injury will help you stay in good physical condition so you’re healthy enough to care for your loved one. Maintaining your physical health is also important for managing your emotional health.
  3. Get plenty of exercise: 30 minutes of physical activity a day, five days a week is recommended to relieve stress, feel good and prevent disease or illness. If finding the time to exercise is challenging, try to fit in 10 minutes a day. It can be as simple as:
    • Taking a walk around the block
    • Picking up detritus in your yard
    • Gardening
    • Stretching, yoga, tai chi or any other conscious, intentional movement
    • The smallest amount of exercise can do wonders.
  4. Maintain social connections: Spend time connecting with friends and family. Engage in favorite activities and hobbies. Stay connected to your spiritual or faith community.
  5. Eat healthy: Maintaining a healthy diet can improve your heart health, energy, mobility and concentration. The MIND diet, which is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), is heart-healthy and beneficial for both you and your loved one. The diet limits red meat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and fast or fried foods, while focusing on plant-based foods. Try new recipes with your loved one to avoid the need to cook two different meals. Eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet will help you maintain the energy you need as a caregiver and support your overall health.
  6. Explore creative ways to manage stress: Explore relaxation, meditation or yoga practices. Get in touch with your sense of humor. Journal your caregiver successes. Focus on what you can control.
  7. Find support: While your journey as a caregiver may feel lonely at times, it’s important to recognize you’re not alone. Ask for help when you need it and accept offers of support from close friends and family. Let others show how much they care. As your relationship with your loved one becomes more one-sided, it’s important to connect with others who can be fully present. Talking about your loved one’s condition and your grief with those you trust is therapeutic and can help you through the grieving process.

Joining a support group is another place to connect with others going through a similar experience. Support groups offer a safe place to share and discuss feelings, fears and frustrations about their loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Banner Health offers virtual and in-person support groups for caregivers of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s specialist caring for your loved one can be a great resource for information about counseling services and support groups for caregivers, spouses, children and friends.

To help with the coping process, here are some additional strategies to consider:

  • Make a conscious decision to be okay with unanswered questions or problems that are out of your control and cannot be fixed.
  • Acknowledge your sadness as it comes and allow yourself time and space to grieve. Consider seeking out individual counseling to help you process your emotions in a healthy and productive way.
  • Focus on the things you can control and celebrate the wins. Keeping a journal of your caregiving successes can be a great way to regularly reflect on the good moments.
  • Give yourself permission to be hopeful and find things to look forward to.
  • Explore creative ways to manage stress. Get in touch with your sense of humor and use it often or try relaxation, meditation or yoga.

Banner Health is here by your side. If your symptoms of stress worsen or become unmanageable on your own, we encourage you to seek one-on-one care from a mental health professional, which might include psychotherapy or even medication.