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How to Cope with the Stress of Caring for Aging Parents

Caregivers must be vigilant about their own needs whenever possible.

Key points

  • A family caregiver can be vulnerable to many mental and physical health risks as a result of chronic caregiving.
  • Social support is key for caregivers who are prone to feeling isolated as a result of caregiving.
  • Cognitive reframing is a helpful skill for translating challenging circumstances into positive ones.

First, what is a caregiver? Technically, a caregiver is a person who provides care for another person in need. A caregiver may be a paid professional who provides care in the home or at a place that is not the person's home. People who are not paid to provide care are called informal caregivers or family caregivers. This article will focus on family caregivers who provide care on a regular basis for aging parents, with attention to aging parents who may have an injury, an illness such as dementia, a disability, or a COVID-19-related illness.

The role of the caregiver

The list of behaviors a family caregiver engages in is limitless, but the primary activities include managing the person’s overall daily life, assisting in bathing, cooking for and/or helping the person with the act of eating, assisting the person with going to the bathroom, overseeing the provision of medications and vitamins, arranging transportation and assisting with various appointments, and making financial decisions.

Mental health risks for caregivers

The primary mental health symptoms that stem from intensive or long-term caregiving include anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. In addition, anger issues sometimes develop as a result of accumulated stress or resentment due to the caregiver’s own unmet needs. While these symptoms are typically seen as pathological or abnormal, developing these symptoms in response to the intense, chronic demands of caregiving can actually be seen as an understandable reaction to a complex and demanding set circumstances.

Medical risks for caregivers

Many medical risks are involved with chronic caregiving, including the exacerbation or return of a pre-existing or previous illness, hypertension, insomnia or fatigue, frequent headaches, a weakened immune system, and an injury caused by lifting or transferring the person being cared for. Anyone who has provided chronic care to someone in need can relate to at least one of these risks, if not many of them.

The risk of burnout

The totality of the mental and physical consequences of chronic and intensive caregiving for an aging parent render the caregiver at risk for overall burnout. When the caregiver becomes burnt out, the caregiver suffers in their mood, motivation, and energy level. For this reason, caregivers must be extremely vigilant to practice good self-care which involves a multi-pronged approach to coping.

The challenge, of course, for caregivers is that the demands of caregiving are often so great and time-intensive that it often feels difficult or even impossible to tend to their own needs. Simply put, the caregiver is often in a position where they feel that taking care of their own needs is a luxury they can’t afford. While these practical realities are legitimate and understandable, caregivers must consciously remind themselves that their own needs are important, too. After all, it is only when an individual has physical energy and is in a positive enough mood that they can be effective and positive in providing care to someone else.

Taking inventory of social connectedness

Aside from the relationship a caregiver has with the one they care for, caregivers must take inventory of how socially connected they feel to others. Because the act of caregiving comes with so many demands, caregivers often start to feel isolated and lonely, even if they technically spend a great deal of time with the one they care for.

It’s crucial for every caregiver to be vigilant and disciplined about getting some of their own emotional needs met in other relationships. For example, taking 30 minutes twice per week to meet a friend for coffee, or even scheduling a phone date with a friend or relative, can be surprisingly effective in carrying a caregiver through an intense and isolating week of caregiving. While it’s never a “good” or convenient time for a caregiver to do so, the practice of getting social needs met should be viewed as a non-negotiable requirement rather than a wish or a “want.”

The support of other caregivers

Thanks to the internet, many supports exist for caregivers. Virtual groups for caregivers abound, as well as chat rooms and social media groups. When people feel overwhelmed or alone, they often engage in emotional reasoning rather than logical reasoning, feeling as if they are the only ones who are feeling the way they feel. Joining a group or online chat room with other caregivers allows caregivers to hear others’ experiences, ask for advice, and seek solutions to problems other caregivers may have experienced.

The psychological benefits of caregiving

Finally, when the demands of caregiving leave caregivers feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, they would serve themselves well to practice what therapists call cognitive reframing. For instance, you can take the negative parts of the current circumstances and flip them into positives, reminding yourself that you are being kind and responsible by doing what you can for another human being; you are having the experience of time spent with that person that you won’t always have; and you are modeling caring behavior for others, reminding everyone around you that each of us is a member of a community that ultimately functions best when we protect each other.

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