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Ways to avoid stress in eldercare: What at risk groups should know

Paula Spencer Scott | 3/14/2012, 8:12 a.m.

Everyone has a breaking point Laura Patyk’s came while caring for three live-in elderly parents (including her father-in-law with dementia and her mom with congestive heart failure) and six kids under age 14.

She developed terrible insomnia. She couldn’t eat. Some days, despite her many daily chores, she couldn’t get out of bed. One night, symptoms landed her in the ER. Her diagnosis was physically healthy but emotionally and mentally exhausted.

You won’t find “caregiver stress syndrome” or “caregiver syndrome” in the “DSM,” the diagnostic manual that psychiatrists use to define illness. But the effects experienced by many of the 34 million unpaid family caregivers looking after America’s elders are every bit as potent and debilitating as other conditions found there. And some caregivers are at higher risk than others.

Caregivers are among the three most-stressed groups in the United States, according to the 2012 Stress in America Report by the American Psychological Association. Some researchers call the unique stress experienced by family caregivers a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As many as 70 percent of family caregivers show signs of depression surveys show — far higher rates than for peers who aren’t in a caregiver role.

“I was trying to do it all, be everything to everybody,” says Patyk, 45, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. “I was taking care of everybody but myself.”

Who’s the most stressed?

Not all caregivers experience stress equally, notes Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), a nonprofit coalition based in Bethesda, Md.

Many family members report that stress is offset by deep personal satisfaction or by closer ties to the person in their care. For about a third of Alzheimer’s caregivers for example, positives outweigh negatives, according to data from the NAC. Adult daughters often report experiencing personal growth as a result of caring for parents, says Natalie Pope, a social worker at Ohio University. They gain awareness of mortality and are motivated to plan for their own lives.

But for the majority — and even for many of those who see silver linings, experts say — the caregiving journey is a track littered with physical and psychological hurdles.

Consider yourself at extra risk of caregiver stress if you answer “yes” to any of the following seven questions. (And many caregivers will tick multiple boxes.)

Are you a woman?

In general, women tend to have more negative experiences as caregivers than men , says I-Fen Lin, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, who has researched gender and relationship differences among caregivers. Daughters and wives find caregiving more stressful than do sons or husbands.

“Men tend to be more oriented to solving problems, and women focus on the relationship,” she says. Women are also more socialized to nurture, which leads to their doing more stressful tasks like bathing, toileting, and dressing, while men tend to do less hands-on care, focusing on tasks like finances and providing transportation or financial support.

Are you caring for a spouse?

Spousal caregivers of both genders tend to report higher levels of stress than adult-child caregivers, Lin says.