As America ages, the likelihood that you or someone you know will become a caregiver to a relative with Alzheimer’s disease is also growing. An estimated 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure or prevention, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The nonprofit group projects that the number of people age 65 or older with the disease will reach 7.1 million by 2025 – an increase of nearly 40 percent from the 5.1 million people age 65 or older afflicted by the neurodegenerative condition in 2015.
More than 15 million family caregivers are providing care to loved ones with Alzheimer’s now and that number is bound to grow.
“We’re seeing more and more patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia at our practice, particularly among the aging baby boomers” said Dr. Lakshmi Chalavadi , an internist at Novant Health Senior Care who specializes in geriatrics.
The impact of taking care of someone with the disease can be devastating to caregivers as well as patients. Nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers say the emotional stress of caregiving is very high, and 40 percent of these people have depression. The physical and emotional toll of caregiving for loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s accounted for $9.7 billion in health care costs for these helpers last year.
More than half of family caregivers of people with dementia are taking care of a parent and roughly two-thirds of caregivers are women. Chalavadi said she sees the responsibility of caregiving most often handled by the daughters of patients. This responsibility for taking care of a loved one’s well-being can be rewarding, but it is demanding.
In many cases for middle-aged women and men, it means juggling multiple demands of family, children and work. Novant Health offers resources to help make the role of caregiver easier. The health care system offers guidance on providing care not just for obvious physical needs, but also for a parent’s emotional and mental needs. And it also has information linking caregivers to behavioral health specialists.
“Many of the caregivers I see run into challenges they didn’t anticipate and they have anxiety when they better understand the scope of the situation,” Chalavadi said. “Patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia can suffer from behavioral problems and depression and they may not be cooperative, which can be difficult for the caregiver.”
Novant Health has a guide for helping caregivers care for themselves so they don’t suffer burnout.
Be on the lookout for symptoms of burnout, including:
- Feeling guilty or helpless.
- Losing pleasure in things that used to interest you, such as exercising or socializing.
- Losing or gaining too much weight.
- Sleeping more or less than normal.
- Feeling depleted.
“Many caregivers neglect their own needs,” Chalavadi said. “They feel they have no time to look after themselves or they are concerned about financial issues arising from the patient’s diagnosis. Sometimes it takes a toll on their other family relationships.”
Protecting yourself from the stress and fatigue of being a caregiver can be as simple as taking a 15-minute walk break. Novant Health also recommends these strategies to help combat burnout:
- Be willing to ask for help when you need it. Chalavadi said this is the most important step that a caregiver can take. Many people will not ask for help. In her practice, the doctor makes it a point to ask the question: “How can I help you?” “There are resources I may know about available to help caregivers,” she said.
- Plan to have another family member or close friend to spend time with your parent once a week so you can have some free time to do something you enjoy.
- Join a support group where you can speak about some the challenges you’re facing as a caregiver. “Peer support will help alleviate some of the stress and may provide answers to some caregiver questions through shared experiences,” Chalavadi said.
- Consider using an adult recreation center or seeking help from a faith-based program for seniors. “Sometimes, insurance will cover transportation costs related to getting a patient to doctors’ and other appointments,” Chalavadi said.
- Accept your emotions and frustration. They’re normal. However, if you feel you are having trouble handling your situation, talk to your doctor because you may have depression.
Click here for additional resources to help with caregiver planning. Keep in mind that there may come a time when you can no longer safely take care of your ailing parent, and you may need to change your current arrangement.