Informal Caregiver Stress: The Dangers of Taking on Too Much

Informal caregiver stress can result from taking on excessive responsibilities, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion. The dangers of overburdening oneself with caregiving duties may include burnout, health decline, and a diminished ability to provide effective care.

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Informal Caregiver Stress: The Dangers of Taking on Too Much
6 Min Read August 7th, 2023

Do you ever find your thoughts drifting toward the future and the inevitable process of aging? It's a topic you may shy away from, yet ignoring it won't make it disappear. In fact, the lack of planning for your later years often leads to a crisis that can tear at the fabric of even the closest families. Whether it results in draining income and assets to pay for professional long-term care or pressuring family members into caregiving roles, the outcomes are rarely ideal.

Consider the phenomenon of informal caregiving: the unpaid, often unheralded support that family and friends provide to loved ones struggling with everyday tasks. These activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing and eating, and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), like managing finances, become monumental challenges for many as they age.

According to data compiled by "A Place for Mom," nearly 17% of the U.S. adult population is engaged in this unsung labor of love, caring for an adult over age 50. A staggering 75% of these caregivers are women, many of whom dedicate as much time to caregiving as they would to a full-time job. Simultaneously, they may be juggling their careers or raising their own children.

When you dive into the complex world of caregiving and discover the varying demographics by race, age, education status, and more, the picture that emerges is one of devotion but also of stress and potential burnout.

Caregiving Responsibilities are Overwhelming

Indeed, informal caregiving can be an enriching, even transformative experience. Yet, it is also fraught with challenges. The responsibilities can become overwhelming, especially when balanced with other family and work obligations. 

Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and the director of its Center on Longevity, told USA Today that adult children see their older parents hearing weaken, their gait slowing, and their memories dim. This experience of their parent's decline can provoke feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, and frustration.

Many people struggle as they witness age-related decline in their parents' functioning.

The emotional toll can be profound, particularly when caring for a loved one with these chronic health and mobility issues facing the trials of aging.

Reversed Roles

The transition often proves stressful when adult children view their parents not as the capable caregivers they remember when they were young but as individuals needing care. Questions arise about the speed of potential decline, the financial stability of their parents, and their future living conditions. This reversal of roles between child and parent can strain family relationships, a complexity further exacerbated by societal stereotypes that portray aging negatively, reinforcing a sentiment that growing older is a process to be resisted or denied.

This landscape of caregiving and aging is one we will all navigate sooner or later. Isn't it time you looked at it more closely? Whether you need care in the future or provide it for others now, understanding the dynamics at play is the first step toward making informed, compassionate choices for ourselves and our families. It's a conversation worth having, and it starts with recognizing the reality of aging and the choices that lie ahead.

You're on Your Own

It surprises many families that health insurance and Medicare will not cover most long-term care services. A survey conducted by the Nationwide Retirement Institute indicated that many people had no clue what Long-Term Care Insurance is, and some thought they already had a long-term care plan because they confused disability insurance they get at work with long-term care.

While Medicaid will pay for long-term health care, it will only do so for those with little or no income and assets. For those who have Long-Term Care Insurance, there is little question that policies provide comprehensive benefits. However, once an individual's health has already deteriorated, the ability to obtain coverage disappears.

Without an LTC policy, you will rely on your income and savings, or your family will step in and provide care despite being untrained and unprepared.  

The Dangers of Caregiver Stress

Being a professional caregiver is a demanding job requiring specialized skills and emotional resilience. But when a loved one steps into this role, the challenges are amplified. Family caregivers face the physical and emotional demands of tending to a loved one and must often balance these responsibilities with other commitments. The juggling of responsibilities can severely strain the family caregiver, with immediate and lasting impacts on their health.

Many family caregivers, and care recipients, don't fully comprehend the difficulty of the role of being a caregiver. Richard Schulz, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh and a national expert on family caregiving, says caregiving profoundly affects the caregiver's life. 

Many people know there's a reasonably high possibility they'll occupy this job at some point, but they have no idea how profoundly it will affect their lives.

Caregiver stress isn't merely a personal burden; it's a medical concern that can manifest in a variety of serious health problems. Physical ailments like heart disease and high blood pressure can arise, along with mental health struggles such as depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions don't merely affect the caregiver; they ripple through the entire care experience, impacting the quality of care provided.

The Family Caregiver Alliance says that providing care for an older relative often takes a toll on the psychological well-being of family caregivers. Increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges are commonly reported among those who undertake the demanding task of caring for an aging loved one.

Estimates indicate that between 40% and 70% of caregivers experience clinically significant symptoms of depression. Of those, roughly a quarter to half meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

The consequences of caregiver stress also extend to the ones being cared for. A stressed caregiver may find their patience wearing thin, their attentiveness waning, and their effectiveness in providing essential care diminishing. This decline in caregiving quality can lead to neglect, potentially causing further harm to the individual who relies on that support.

The dynamics of caregiving, especially among family members, is a complex and delicate balance. It requires recognizing the profound emotional connections that can both enrich and complicate the caregiving relationship. Without proper support and awareness, the caregiver's well-being may be compromised, leading to a cascading effect that diminishes the quality of care for all involved.

Studies on Caregiver Stress

There have been several studies that have shown the dangers of caregiver stress. For example, one study found that caregivers who were highly stressed were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as those who were not stressed. Another study found that caregivers who were stressed were more likely to develop depression and anxiety.

What Can Be Done to Help?

There are several things that can be done to help informal caregivers cope with stress. These include:

  • Find support from others. Caregivers should reach out to family and friends for support. They can also join support groups or online forums for caregivers.
  • Take care of themselves. Caregivers should get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. They should also find time for activities that they enjoy.
  • Seek professional help. If caregiver stress is severe, caregivers may need to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor.

What Can You Do Now to Avoid Your Future Family Crisis?

Few people desire to be a burden on their loved ones, and even though your adult children may tell you they will take care of you, they are unlikely to understand what that means. 

Planning will alleviate this family stress and give your loved ones the time to remain family. Discussing aging in a truthful realistic way may be a good starting point. Long-Term Care Insurance will provide the resources to ensure your family has the time to really support you in the right way without the physical demands on top of the emotional impact.

Most people add coverage as part of their retirement plan in their 40s or 50s. Meanwhile, for your older parents now, be as supportive as possible and get help so it doesn't all fall on you.

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About the Author

Linda Kople is a freelance writer with a personal family history in long-term care. She specializes in aging-related topics such as caregiving, health, and retirement planning. Her experiences and interests drive her to explore and write about the various aspects of aging and health issues.

LTC News Contributor Linda Kople

Linda Kople

Contributor since October 31st, 2017

Editor's Note

One of the most critical and often overlooked aspects of financial planning is providing for future long-term care. As you approach your senior years, the likelihood of requiring extended medical care increases. Long-Term Care Insurance is emerging as an essential part of financial planning for the individual and the entire family. 

The fact is Long-Term Care Insurance is a family-centric decision. Here's why:

  • Financial Security: Between in-home care, assisted living, or nursing home facilities, the costs can quickly add up. Long-Term Care Insurance can alleviate the financial burden, protecting your family's financial stability and ensuring they won't have to shoulder unexpected expenses.
  • Emotional Well-Being: LTC Insurance removes uncertainty during an already challenging time, providing peace of mind for both you and your family members. Families can focus on emotional support rather than worrying about logistical and financial concerns.
  • Freedom of Choice: Flexibility in care options allows you control over the type and location of care. This choice can ease the decision-making process for your family members, who can feel confident that they are honoring your preferences.
  • Reducing Caregiver Stress: Long-Term Care Insurance offers the means to access professional care when needed, allowing your family to maintain their well-being and preserving family relationships.
  • Legacy Protection: Including LTC Insurance in your retirement plan helps protect your income and assets that might otherwise be intended to leave to your family. Without LTC Insurance, the high costs of care could erode savings. Securing an LTC policy can preserve your financial legacy, providing for your family's future and ensuring quality care.

Act Sooner Than Later

With Long-Term Care Insurance, because of the cost of the premiums and underwriting, the sooner you plan, the better. Premiums are based on your age when you obtain coverage, your health, your family history, and the total amount of benefits within the policy. 

The best time to get coverage is in your 40s or 50s. Be sure to speak with a specialist representing all the major insurance companies offering this type of coverage.

Experienced Help is Worth It

Using an Independent Long-Term Care Insurance specialist does not cost you anything. The proper professional will help match your age, health, and other factors to find the best coverage at the lowest cost. 

Every insurance company has its specific underwriting guidelines and pricing. An LTC Insurance specialist will shop the top companies and review their underwriting guidelines to provide you with accurate quotes and recommendations for coverage levels. 

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Aging Parents Deserve Quality Care

Should your parents show signs of deteriorating health, they are entitled to top-notch care. If they have the foresight to secure a Long-Term Care Insurance policy, consider it a fortunate circumstance. Make it a point not to postpone utilizing the policy's benefits.

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