Caregiver Stress Awareness in Hospice Care
By: Joelle Jean, FNP
Caring for a loved one who is terminally ill and on hospice is emotionally and physically taxing. In 2015, an estimated 39.8 million caregivers provided unpaid care to an adult with a disability or illness. The estimated value of the service supplied by caregivers is up to $470 billion since 2013.
Caregivers may deny help from others, perhaps out of guilt or obligation. However, 1 out of 6 caregivers report not being asked what they need to care for themselves. Caregivers can work up to 8.3 hours per day or 66 hours per week during their loved ones’ last days of life. Often, this is in addition to working a full-time job and caring for their own immediate family.
Caregivers are at risk for depression, severe fatigue or burnout, or even health issues such as hypertension, stroke, obesity, or weight loss due to stress.
What is a caregiver?
A caregiver, also known as an informal caregiver, is an unpaid individual or group of individuals who provide care to a loved one. Caregivers can be a spouse, family members, partner, friend, neighbor, or combination of these individuals.
A caregiver assists their loved ones with activities of daily living which include:
- Medical tasks such as giving medications, changing wound dressings, and managing pain
A caregiver can also play a significant role in coordinating care for their loved ones. Many are appointed power of attorney or the primary decision maker for their loved ones, managing finances, property, and most suitable medical care for the individual.
What causes caregiver stress or burnout?
There is no clear definition of caregiver stress. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Burnout can be a response to stress, defined as extreme emotional exhaustion. According to stress.org, stages of burnout are:
- Apathy or loss of interest
A caregiver with stress or burnout exhibits signs of feeling overloaded, overwhelmed, emotionally drained, tiredness, detachment from the person they are caring for, and a reduced sense of accomplishment.
Who is most affected by caregiver stress?
Caregiver stress affects the person or people directly caring for their loved one. Stress can also affect caregivers in different ways. For example, one caregiver may find specific tasks stressful or overwhelming while another caregiver may find the task relaxing and rewarding.
What are the signs and symptoms of caregiver stress?
Often, caregivers are not aware of their stress or feeling of burnout. Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress can be subtle or obvious. It is important to identify caregiver stress so it can be eased.
Anxiety is a stress response, activating the fight or flight response that happens chemically in the brain. Physically, anxiety can be described as:
- Increased heart rate
- Feelings of doom or hopelessness
- Stomach pain and or spasms
- Heavy breathing
- Feeling weak or tired
Caregivers suffering from stress may not realize they are fatigued. Fatigue is the body’s response to burnout and can be physical, emotional, or psychological.
Stress can cause weight changes and affect eating patterns. Weight change can occur when dealing with caregiver stress. Rapid weight gain or unexplained weight loss is a warning sign of caregiver stress and should be addressed appropriately.
Caregivers may become easily annoyed or short-tempered with loved ones, family members, or friends. Feeling irritable may be a warning sign of caregiver stress.
Feelings of being overwhelmed
Feeling overwhelmed or anxious is normal. Caregivers may become overwhelmed with the amount of care needed to provide to their loved ones. Trouble concentrating, changes in sleep patterns, and changes in eating habits may occur.
Losing interest in activities can be a sign of depression due to the demanding responsibilities of caregiving. Signs of depression include:
- Little interest or pleasure in doing things
- Feeling down or hopeless
- Change in sleep patterns
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Potential health risks as a result of caregiver stress
Chronic stress (or stress lasting for more than six weeks) can have lasting health problems. Caregivers exhibiting signs and symptoms of stress and burnout have a higher chance of developing health risks.
High blood pressure
Caregivers can suffer from high blood pressure due to the stress of caring for a loved one in hospice. If caregivers have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, stress can make the disease worse. Uncontrolled high blood pressure puts caregivers at higher risk for:
- Atherosclerosis or disease of the arteries
- Heart attack
- Organ damage
Weakened immune system
The immune system is in place to protect the body from illness and disease. Stress can cause a weakened immune system. With a weakened immune system, caregivers can become sick or develop chronic illnesses such as:
- Inflammation throughout the body
- Increase in fat in the blood and body
- Chronic pain
- Frequent colds and infections
Short term memory loss
Studies have shown that a symptom of chronic stress is the shrinking of the brain. Shrinking of the brain causes short-term memory loss. Short term memory loss affects learning, judgement, and memory process.
Headaches and body pains
Stress can cause headaches and body pains. On a hormonal level, the increase of cortisol causes headaches even at rest. The physical nature of caring for a loved one on hospice- lifting, standing, walking, and rotating- can cause severe body pain or injury.
How to relieve or prevent caregiver stress and burnout
Self-care is imperative for caregivers caring for their loved ones in hospice. Self-care means caring for yourself, so you can improve your health to care for others.
Finding the time and the energy to exercise might sound difficult. However, even carving out 30 minutes a day has positive effects on your health. Exercising whether it is running, walking, swimming, or doing yoga will lower blood pressure, increase energy, and improve mood.
Asking and accepting help from others
Accepting help can be difficult for some caregivers. It is important to ask and accept help so that you are available for your loved one mentally and physically.
Under most insurances and Medicare, respite care is available to relieve the burden of caregiver stress. Respite care will give short term caregiver relief to those who are in need.
Eat and sleep well
Eating and sleeping well are fundamental in protecting your physical and mental health. A well-balanced meal of fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods is important for physical and mental well-being. Adding vitamins such as a multivitamin, vitamin D, or vitamin B-12 can also help improve your mood and energy.
Having a good night’s sleep has many health benefits. Feeling well-rested and energized will only benefit you, as the caregiver, and your loved one. Improved memory, mood, and overall well-being are all benefits of quality sleep.
Seek out support groups
Support groups add immense value to caregivers who are caring for loved ones in hospice. Joining support groups reassures caregivers that they aren’t alone. Support groups:
- Allow you to talk about your feelings
- Help you realize others are going through the same situation
- Reduces stress and depression
- Teaches coping skills and ways to divert stress
Maintain personal relationships
Maintaining personal relationships is as important as joining support groups. Meeting up with friends or family members allows you to relax. It also allows you to take time for yourself and time away from your loved one.
Awareness of caregivers’ stress and burnout must be addressed and acknowledged for caregivers to feel supported and recognized for their challenging work. The hospice team and its services are a fundamental part of bringing this awareness to the forefront.