Caregiver Stress: The Impact of Chronic Disease on the Family
A chronic condition is a problem that lasts for a long time or one that will never go away, such as Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. With the growing aging population, many more people will be touched by chronic condition. Many more will need assistance with routine aspects of everyday life.
The responsibilities of caregiving, added to the routine pressures of maintaining a family and professional life, can naturally lead to stress. Stress, in turn, creates a ripple effect on the health and well-being of not only the caregiver, but everyone from family members to friends and co-workers.
Living with a chronic condition—and caring for a person with a chronic condition—can lead to physical and emotional stress. The symptoms of this stress may look similar in both the person dealing with the condition and the caregiver. The symptoms include:
For the person with the chronic condition, the level and type of stress may vary depending on the specific illness and its prognosis. Common causes of physical and emotional stress include:
For caregivers who offer a wide range of help, stressors also depend on the intensity of their involvement and their relationship to the person in need. These stressors often include:
Because it is common for caregivers to feel stressed and depressed, some doctors refer to caregivers as "hidden patients."
Because of the levels and types of stress involved, the impact of chronic illness can extend far beyond the sufferers and their caregivers. Nearly always, it affects the household of the person with the chronic condition. And as those household members are affected, the people who love, care for, and work with them can experience effects as well. A study of grown children with chronically ill parents revealed that even non-caregiver children showed an increased risk of depression.
In every chronic condition, strong support systems benefit everyone. A study of AIDS caregivers, for example, connected strong social support with better coping skills. Researchers are looking into the coping mechanisms that caregivers use and searching for better ways to support caregivers.
While the caregiver typically serves as a primary support system for the chronically ill person, friends and family members can also play important roles. This can be children taking on more responsibilities or friends ensuring that caregivers take time off to relax. These steps help lower the stress level.
Steps to Care for Yourself
Because of the relentless demands associated with chronic illness, understanding positive methods of coping can greatly benefit everyone affected by the condition. Helpful coping strategies include:
The most important point to remember is that you do not need to go through this alone. There are resources available to help you and your loved one. Reach out and contract someone for the support that you deserve!
Children of Aging Parents
Family Caregiver Alliance
Alzheimer Society of Canada
Canadian Caregiver Coalition
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Caregiver stress. American Academy of Family Physicians. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/x2314.xml . Updated May 2012. Accessed June 12, 2012.
McCausland J, Pakenham KI. Investigation of the benefits of HIV/AIDS caregiving and relations among caregiving adjustment, benefit finding, and stress and coping variables. AIDS Care. 2003;15:853-869.
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Take care of you yourself. Alzheimer's Association website. Available at: http://www.alz.org.... Accessed June 12, 2012.
What is a caregiver? National Center on Elder Abuse website. Available at: http://www.elderabusecenter.org/pdf/family/fact_sheet.pdf . Accessed June 12, 2012.
Last reviewed June 2012 by Brian Randall, MD