Caregivers are unpaid individuals, typically a spouse, child, neighbor, or friend, who assist with activities of daily living and medical tasks. These informal caregivers often fill in gaps between medical professionals or paid aides to meet the needs of incapacitated individuals. 

The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP indicate that approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. Roughly 15.7 million adult family caregivers in the United States care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, states the Alzheimer’s Association. Though both men and women serve as caregivers, females are the largest segment of unpaid caregivers, handling some of the most difficult tasks, such as bathing and dressing.

Many caregivers selflessly give back by providing assistance to a friend or family member, and view this type of service as a form of charitable giving. Others see it as simply being a good friend or family member. Although it can be rewarding to care for another person, caregiving also can be a stressful job that takes both a physical and emotional toll on caregivers. Caregiver stress is a very real side effect. 

It is important for caregivers to recognize that offering medical care and support can leave them vulnerable to a wide range of consequences. These can include anxiety, depression, fatigue, and even increased exposure to illness. It can be particularly sad to witness a loved one’s health gradually deteriorate. 

The Office on Women’s Health says that anyone is susceptible to caregiver stress, but more women caregivers say they have stress and other health problems than male caregivers. Women who are caregivers of spouses are more likely to experience high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes than men. Depression is quite common among caregivers who spend a lot of time assisting those with various dementias because of the constant care such people require.

To remain as healthy as possible, caregivers should take steps to recognize symptoms of caregiver stress and avoid burnout. Here are some signs to keep in mind:

• Feelings of being overwhelmed

• Feeling alone or deserted by others

• Social withdrawal from friends or activities that used to make you feel good

• Exhaustion that makes it challenging to complete necessary tasks

• Sleeplessness or sleeping more than normal

• Lack of concentration that impacts daily tasks

• Overreaction to minor nuisances

• Cutting back on leisure activities

• Neglecting things at home or other people who are well

• An immune system that is run down, leading to constant illness

The Alzheimer’s Association says it is important for caregivers to find time for themselves apart from caregiving tasks. Respite care or relying on others to fill in can free up time for a caregiver to relax and recharge. It is also important to prevent caregiving from becoming a person’s whole existence. Investing time in other things that provide meaning and purpose can help caregivers find balance. Also, focusing on the things that can be controlled and small victories can make a difference.