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Running on Empty

Women concerned about an aging relative's health were about three times more likely (34 percent) to say they worry "a great deal" about having enough time for family than those who were not responsible...

New Home Instead Senior Care Survey/Web Data Indicate Stress Takes a Dramatic Toll on Those Caring for Older Adults

She awakens in the morning still exhausted after a fitful night of sleep and immediately feels overwhelmed. There’s the report due at work today that she hasn’t had time to prepare, her son’s afternoon soccer practice and a school board meeting that night.

And, she’s also a family caregiver for a senior – meaning she has to find time for her mother, who’s 84-years-old and lives at home alone.

Her mother can’t drive anymore, or reach into the cupboard to pull out a cereal box, or even see well enough to take her correct medication dosages. And today, just like yesterday, there are no easy answers about how to fit her mom into the never-ending juggling act that, for her, is just a typical day.

caregiver stress infographic
caregiver stress infographic

This is the life of the family caregiver – who totals one in every four Americans, according to various studies. New evidence and interviews with long term care family caregivers reveal a disturbing trend of the debilitating stress that often accompanies this role, although most still say that, in spite of the challenges, the job also comes with many rewards.

A recent stress test conducted by Home Instead Senior Care demonstrated that of the 8,000 family caregivers who participated, more than three-fourths (76 percent) reported their aging loved one’s needs to be overwhelming, 91 percent said they have episodes of feeling anxious or irritable, 73 percent have disturbed sleep patterns and 56 percent seem to become ill more frequently.

“Every day we encounter these family caregivers who love and want the best for their aging family members, but don’t know how to fit it all in,” said Paul Hogan, CEO of Home Instead Senior Care. “For these people, stress is a constant companion.”

The following stories are but a few true-life family caregiving stress examples.

Arlene Romilly, a nurse practitioner from Pittsburgh, PA, moved her parents into her home prior to her mother’s death in September of 2005, and her 90-year-old father still lives with her.

“It became so stressful as my mom’s memory faded and she could no longer cope with daily activities without direction,” Romilly said.  “And my father just wasn’t capable of being a caregiver. This created distraction for me at work. I had problems sleeping and was neglecting my own health care. For a while, I was treated for depression.”

Things are better now that Romilly has a Home Instead Senior Care CAREGiver to look out for her father while she’s at work. But in spite of the challenges, she believes the joys of elder care caregiving helped balance out the stress. “I was pleased to be able to care for my family,” she said.

And Cat Tenorio, of Grass Valley, CA, had just been promoted to a new position at her accounting job when she gave it up to care for her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“As my mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened, I had to move her into my bedroom because she was wandering,” Tenorio said. “Consequently, I didn’t sleep at night, and when she would sleep during the day, I would take sleep medication so I could, too. I gradually became addicted to it.”

That’s when Tenorio’s husband had to step in and say, “We can’t do this anymore.”  They moved her mother to a convalescent home, where she was comfortable until she died three months later. And instead of going back to her accounting career, Tenorio became a Home Instead CAREGiver so she could help others in elder care situations similar to hers.

These examples each illustrate how extremely important support is to the overall equation – it’s one of the key survival tools for any family health care caregiver.

According to Patricia Volland, MSW MBA, senior vice president of The New York Academy of Medicine and director of the Academy’s Social Work Leadership Institute , “This generation of seniors is living longer, and their children often are still raising families. They’re not prepared for their older parents’ needs, and the dynamic between adult children and aging parents is not a simple one.”

In an effort to better prepare the social workers they train, Volland and her team commissioned a study, released late last year, entitled “Squeezed Between Children and Older Parents: A Survey of Sandwich Generation Women”1. The poll, which surveyed women ages 35 to 54, showed that more than 60 percent of women concerned about an aging relative’s health said they have difficulty managing stress, compared with 48 percent of women for whom an aging relative’s health was not a concern.

Women concerned about an aging relative’s health were about three times more likely (34 percent) to say they worry “a great deal” about having enough time for family than those who were not responsible for the care of an aging loved one (12 percent).

“Working through the maze of helping a loved one can be more than a full-time job,” Volland said. “Social workers are uniquely trained to provide comprehensive care coordination. This begins with a comprehensive assessment, which includes identifying resources, managing the complexity of the relationships between the many care systems people encounter such as health, payment, and formal and informal supportive services, as well as dealing with family dynamics.”

Social workers and other senior care experts often recommend resources like Home Instead Senior Care to help the elderly remain independent and their family caregivers manage stress. Home Instead CAREGivers provide older adults companionship and assistance with meal preparation, light housekeeping, medication reminders, shopping and errands – thus providing a valuable respite for weary family caregivers, as well.

“Our services can be just what harried family members need to help fill in caregiving gaps they may be experiencing, as well as to alleviate the stress and worry that caregiving can bring to their lives,” said Hogan.  “Most family caregivers agree that there are many rewards associated with this job, and that additional support can make all the difference.”

Caregiver Survival Tools

If you’re currently experiencing caregiver stress, try the following senior services survival tools recommended by Home Instead Senior Care:

  • Work Out: Exercise and enjoy something you like to do (walking, dancing, biking, running, swimming, etc.) for a minimum of 20 minutes at least three times per week. Consider learning a stress-management exercise such as yoga or tai-chi, which teaches inner balance and relaxation.
  • Meditate: Sit still and breathe deeply with your mind as “quiet” as possible whenever things feel like they are moving too quickly or you are feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities as a caregiver.  Many times you will feel like you don’t even have a minute to yourself, but it’s important to walk away and to take that minute.
  • Ask for Help: To avoid burnout and stress, you can enlist the help of other family members, friends, and/or consider hiring a professional non-medical caregiver for assistance. There is no need to feel guilty for reaching out.
  • Take a Break: Make arrangements for any necessary fill-in help (family, friends, volunteers or professional caregivers).  Take single days, a weekend, or even a week’s vacation; just make sure you line up your support system so you can be confident that your loved one is safe and happy. And when you’re away, stay away. Talk about different things, read that book you haven’t been able to get to, see a movie. Only a real break will renew and refresh you.
  • Eat Well: Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins – including nuts and beans – and whole grains. Indulging in caffeine, fast food and sugar as quick “pick-me-ups” also produce quick “let-downs.”
  • Take Care of Yourself: Just like you make sure your loved one gets to the doctor regularly, make sure you get your annual check-up.  Being a caregiver provides many excuses for skipping your necessary check-ups, but you cannot and should not compromise your health.
  • Indulge: Treat yourself to a foot massage, manicure, nice dinner out or a concert to take yourself away from the situation and to reward yourself for the wonderful care you are providing to your aging relative. You shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to feel good.
  • Find Support: Find a local caregiver support group, which will help you understand that what you are feeling and experiencing is normal for someone in your position. This is a place to get practical advice from people who are in your situation and to bounce off those feelings of stress, since everyone is likely to be in the same situation and can empathize.

For more helpful tips and information, visit

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