The workload of these family caregivers has expanded during the pandemic, whether their loved one lives with them or in a senior living community. They have been balancing efforts to protect their loved ones from the virus with the need to prevent social isolation. It can be harder to convince a loved one with dementia to wear their mask or wash their hands, and fewer resources and respite opportunities have been available. The level of stress and depression among family caregivers has soared.
Everyone should be aware of this situation, say experts, who point out that our aging population means that more and more families will someday be caring for a loved one with dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than five million people in the U.S. today are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and 16 million loved ones are providing informal care for them—care that if paid for would cost nearly $244 billion each year.
Even pre-COVID, dementia caregivers were under stress.
Before the pandemic began, researchers from the University of Michigan partnered with the AARP for a poll of dementia caregivers. Their study found that while 85% of these caregivers said it’s rewarding to provide care for their loved one, over half also reported that their caregiving duties interfered with taking care of their own physical and financial health. And a full 78% said that caring for their loved one was stressful.
We know that stress is associated with poor health, affecting almost every body system, including our heart, lungs and brain. And it is a sad irony that caring for a person with Alzheimer’s can be so stressful that it raises the caregiver’s risk of, in turn, developing dementia.
How can Alzheimer’s caregivers reduce their stress level and its negative effects? A study published by the American Psychosomatic Society looked at the effect of caregiver stress on blood pressure. The researchers, who were from the University of California San Diego, found that caregivers who made time for exercise had lower blood pressure. So did caregivers who could take part in hobbies and interests they enjoyed, such as spending time outdoors, watching TV, listening to music and reading.
It’s also important for caregivers to eat a healthy diet, keep regular healthcare appointments, and spend time with other family members and friends. Meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques can help clear the mind and release tension. If you are a family caregiver and you’re feeling depressed or anxious, seek help from a counselor who is familiar with caregiver challenges. Dementia care can dredge up “old issues” in your relationship with the person you’re caring for, and some of the behavior changes associated with the disease, such as aggression and paranoia, can be emotionally painful. To keep things in perspective, learn all you can about how the disease affects your loved one.
Locating support resources
“Sounds great,” caregivers might say. “But where would I find the time to do all those things that relax me, when the time crunch is what’s stressing me out?”
It can be a cycle. A caregiver can find their duties gradually increasing until they’re swamped—and now they have no time to research support services that could help. Experts confirm that navigating these resources can be a big stress factor in itself! But for the sake of both the caregiver and their loved one, it’s important to get help. If you’re a caregiver, talk to family and friends about helping out. Contact your local senior services agency to learn about services that are available for people with dementia and their caregivers. Ask about respite care available through adult day centers, home care agencies and senior living communities. An aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) can help locate these resources.
If you’re not sure how to pay for this help, look into public benefits programs. If your loved one has long-term care insurance, it may cover some care. And it may be time for a family meeting. If you are the primary caregiver, other family members may not realize all you do, what caregiving is costing you, and how it affects your health and career. Chipping in to help pay for services may be a great way they can do their part.
And learn all you can about your loved one’s condition by taking a caregiver class and joining a support group where you can get tips from those in the know. Many of these groups are currently meeting online, and this will likely continue as an option now that people have become used to the convenience of virtual connections.