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Caregiver Stress: The Challenge of Caring for a Loved One

It isn’t uncommon when caring for a loved one who is suffering from dementia-related illness, stroke, or another disabling condition to feel suddenly put upon and overwhelmed. Caring for someone who is sick is difficult, taxing work even for professional caregivers, but for the vast majority of people suffering from these kinds of conditions or diseases, the primary caregiving responsibilities typically fall on those least prepared to shoulder the responsibility of this kind of care: their spouse, their partner, their child, or another immediate family members.

Typically known as an informal caregiver, these individuals shoulder the overwhelming majority of care-giving responsibilities in an unpaid, unaided capacity. In the US alone, about 43.5 million unpaid caregivers provided care for an adult or child in the past 12 months.

Of those, 34.2 million cared for someone aged 50 years or older.

For many of these caregivers, their important, under-appreciated work can cause an extraordinary amount of stress that often goes unacknowledged, unappreciated, and unspoken. Unfortunately, this can lead to some potentially dangerous situations for the caregiver and their loved one if not addressed as soon as possible.

Common Causes of Caregiver Distress

The most important cause of caregiver distress is the lack of adequate health care training and education. In most states, Certified Nursing Aides, one of the most common, formal caregiving professions, require certification and at least 75 hours of training, at a minimum; and some states require even more than that.

For informal caregivers, no training is required or expected and so it is rarely, if ever, offered; and when it is, in many cases, such training is unaffordable for a family struggling to care for a disabled family member anyway.

This is a major problem since caring for people with disabilities can be an exceptionally challenging health care task. This is especially true when caring for a family member who suffers from a dementia-related disease, stroke, or a severe mental illness as these diseases can sometimes come with personality changes, unruliness, or other forms of problematic behavior that are difficult for even professional caregivers to manage.

An informal caregiver often struggles just to keep their family member safe in such an instance, which can lead to a declining quality of life for those involved.

This can take an enormous emotional toll on the caregiver as they need to manage this difficult situation that they are expected to deal with, which can produce feelings of inadequacy as if their efforts aren’t good enough and that they will be regarded as neglectful of their loved one.

As caregivers stuggle against these unrealistic expectations, they can feel lost or hopeless. This can ultimately lead to depression and anger, which is especially harmful for both caregiver and their loved one and will likely exacerbate the underlying problem.

Its usually not something anyone likes to talk about, but care-giving also creates enormous financial pressures on a family. Already, there are likely to be considerable health care costs that are straining the family budget so having to cut back on work hours in order to care for a loved one reduces the amount of income available to pay for these costs.

Often, we recognize that these costs are necessary in order to care for someone we love and wouldn’t think of foregoing necessary care, so there isn’t a question of whether there is a desire to pay these costs.

The problem of course is that all the love, care, and good intentions in the world doesn’t make these costs any easier to pay for. Adding financial difficulties onto an already emotionally taxing situation quickly compounds a caregiver’s feelings of distress.

There are also the health consequences for the caregiver themselves. It goes without saying that excessive, sustained stress is deeply unhealthy. It can lead to all sorts of costly medical conditions like heart disease and substance abuse.

Signs of Caregiver Distress

Some of the most common warning signs of caregiver distress include:


Rejecting the severity of your loved ones condition is common when a caregiver is overwhelmed. Its easier to think that your spouse will get better and that the current stress is only temporary.

Social Withdrawal

A major sign of Depression—one of the biggest risks an informal caregiver faces—is social withdrawal. Refusing to attend social gatherings that once made them feel good is a major red flag that a caregiver may be in crisis.


Caring for a disabled loved one is often a long-term situation and can require 24 hours-a-day care, nightly sleep interruption, inadequate sleep, and emotional drain, all of which produce a sense of exhaustion; to the point where basic, daily tasks become significant challenges.


The most obvious sign of caregiver distress is irritability. Its common for people who are stressed out to lash out, but this is especially true for informal caregivers who lack the necessary respite needed to defuse the anxiety and tension that produce irritability.

Lack of Concentration

When a caregiver is in distress, they’ll often become forgetful and distracted. Missed appointments become more frequent, they might forget to give their loved one necessary medication on time, or other familiar activity might become more difficult to perform.

Consequences of Caregiver Distress

The consequences of caregiver distress can be very dangerous:

  • Health problems for the caregiver
  • Risks to loved one’s health
  • Emotional crisis
  • Deteriorating Condition of their loved one
  • Declining quality of life
  • Neglect
  • Elder Abuse

What can a Caregiver do if they are feeling overwhelmed?

The most important thing a caregiver can do if they are feeling overwhelmed is to reach out for help. It may feel like they’ve somehow let everyone, especially their loved one, down, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Every caregiver’s situation is different, just as their loved one’s health care situation is different from someone else’s. Its critical for a caregiver to recognize and acknowledge when they are in distress and take action to protect themselves and their loved one. There is no shame in reaching out for help.

Caregivers aren’t as alone as they can sometimes feel. Licensed social workers can provide caregivers with resources that may be available to help them care for their loved one, everything from support groups for caregivers to information about home health care agencies who might be able to assist the caregiver in caring for their loved one.

Whatever they do, the worst thing a caregiver in distress can do is continue to try to manage a bad situation on their own. Not only do they owe their loved one the kind of care that they deserve, but they also owe it to themselves to not put their own health at risk by taking on responsibilities they aren’t equipped to manage.

By getting the help they need, caregivers can focus more on spending quality time with their loved one and maintaining a healthy, loving environment in the home.