A study from New York University found that caregivers are twice as likely as non-caregivers to report physical and mental health complications. One in three caregivers uses medication for caregiving-related health problems and depression among caregivers is three times greater than for non-caregivers in their age group. Another study compared the healing process of caregivers and non-caregivers. Caregivers and non-caregivers were given identical wounds. Caregiver’s wounds took up to 24% longer to heal than non-caregivers.

Caregiver’s immune systems were too stressed to function efficiently. Some of this stress stems from isolation and loneliness. Caregivers, whether they live in the same home as the person they care for or in separate homes, are so involved with the elder’s needs, their jobs, house-keeping, marriages and often growing children that they cannot find the time to take care of their own needs. Add that to the caregiver’s drive to give the elder the best care possible for what looks like the short time he or she has left and you have a recipe for burnout.

Yet the caregiver often doesn’t want to talk of burnout for fear of sounding like a “bad” person. He or she keeps those thoughts tucked away inside. Meanwhile, the expected short-term caregiving extends into years of dedicated care. By then the caregiver is so drawn into the routine of 24/7 caregiving that there seems to be no way out. This self-neglect can lead to a feeling of isolation and loneliness even when the caregiver is surrounded by people.

A caregiver often feels like all he or she does is give. Anger, kept inward and hidden, turns into resentment. Resentment eats at the emotions and body of the caregiver and the downward spiral continues, often leading to physical and emotional illness.

The simplest things can help. A couple of hours on the bicycle path knowing that mom is being watched by a trusted friend can help Dan feel cared for, thus breaking the downward cycle for a time. An evening out with friends can refresh Sue enough so she can face another day without feeling completely depleted.

Sure, you say. That's obvious. The problem, of course, is in the nuts and bolts. Where does this relief come from?

Friends may help in emergencies but they don’t look at your day-in-day-out caregiving as an emergency. They see it as your life. This is where parish nurse programs, block nurse programs, social services, churches, synagogues and non-profit organizations fit in. Our country has fought – and is still struggling – to provide adequate child care for working parents. We also we need to look for ways to provide respite care for the millions of people caring for their elders. These are the caregivers who are getting sick from stress, loneliness and isolation.

Many caregivers feel too stressed to even begin to reach out and ask for help. If you know a caregiver like that you could do some research on securing possible assistance. Perhaps your church group includes people who have a couple of hours to give. Block nurse programs train volunteers who can relieve caregivers so if your community has such a program give them a call.

One reliable action anyone can take is to type the name of their state into a Web browser along with the word "aging." You should find many links to resources and helpful organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the Area Agency on Aging, and your local human services. Make the effort to seek out help for yourself or for a caregiver who matters to you. Respite care for caregivers is not a luxury. It’s often the only way to prevent or at least mitigate significant health issues that can stem from caregiver burnout.

By Carol Bradley Bursack

There's a Hole in My Soul

   Surviving Life as a Caregiver

Writer on Caregiver and Elder Support

Minding Our Elders®