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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.

Do you feel you had or have a choice about caregiving?

Forty percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers in the 2011 Shriver Report , compiled with the Alzheimer’s Association, said they didn’t have a choice about taking on the role. Informal caregivers who felt they had no choice about the role were three times more likely to self-report stress than caregivers who had a choice about caring, found a North Carolina study in the March 2010 issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

“This turns out to be a big stress factor when we’ve asked,” Hunt says of NAC’s own research. “We let the caregivers determine by their own choice of definition what ‘no choice’ meant: ‘I’m an only child, I’m the only one who lives in the area, it was always expected of me, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.’ There can be a thousand different reasons someone doesn’t feel they have a choice.” More women than men reported they didn’t have a choice about caregiving.

Lack of choice can breed emotions such as resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, and a sense of having no control over one’s life.

Do you have young children?

The sandwich generation — squeezed between slices of elders and youngsters — is taxed by a double burden of responsibility. “Adult children are generally more likely to be overwhelmed at first, because it’s the first time they’re experiencing role reversal with their parents and they haven’t yet accumulated a lot of caregiving experience,” Lin says.

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research done yet on the stress of a learning curve for caring, she adds, it stands to reason that unfamiliarity makes things more difficult. And that’s doubly difficult when it comes at the same time you’re on a parenting learning curve as your children go through new stages.

Time for self-care and time to tend to your marital relationship and outside friendships risk being squeezed out.

Then there’s a huge group of people who are struggling under the stress of caregiving but don’t exactly know it yet. That’s because they don’t identify themselves as “caregivers” in the first place. “People tend to think, ‘I’m just doing what any good husband or daughter would do,’ ” NCA’s Hunt says.

She continues, “It’s not until there’s a crisis that they’re apt to realize that they’re doing more than they expected — and when you make that realization, it changes your relationship. He’s no longer just your husband or your dad.” Hunt adds that sons realize this before daughters, daughters before husbands, and wives last of all.

Paula Spencer Scott, a senior editor at Caring.com, wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.