When Caregiving Makes You Sick

Mom leaned against the wall, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand as I spelled out letters to Grandma one at a time: "S-C-O-T-T..." "Slow down...I can't keep up!" Grandma was vexed. The pencil shook in her wobbly hand as she pushed lead against crumpled paper. I saw she had written "S seat," with the "t" trailing jaggedly off as the pencil tip broke away from the pressure. "I just can't seem to remember. Now, who is this again? We should go out to dinner!" She said this brightly, with a smile on her face; Alzheimer's vaporized Grandma's memories so quickly.

Mom crumbled, her broad shoulders folding towards each other at odd angles. She caught her face in her thin hands and cried. I blinked in surprise and noticed how thin she had become. I made her a meal and put her to bed. As I packed Grandma's apartment I was invited to dinner six more times. With each invitation, I felt worry creep in, concerned about mom's health. "What would we do if she got sick?" Mom was having more health problems than ever; strained muscles, a rash and a worrisome brain scan. The stress of managing one disintegrating life was causing her body to fall apart.

Over 43 million Americans care for an older loved one; uncompensated for their work and at high risk for becoming ill themselves. According to a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy, many caregivers develop physical and mental health problems, and engage in bad health habits such as smoking and overeating.

The report also revealed middle-aged baby boomers who are are caregivers are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. [] Geoffrey Hoffman, the lead author of the study sounds an alarm: "Middle aged caregivers were essentially setting themselves up to be the next generation of care recipients." []

In addition to the physical problems that can develop when caring for a loved one, there are emotional and psychological signs it is time to see a doctor and get some relief. Are you tired all the time but have trouble sleeping? Do you find yourself regularly overeating or not eating enough? Are you experiencing feelings of guilt or hopelessness? Or have you lost the ability to enjoy activities or other people? These are signs of depression, a serious and underdiagnosed medical problem.

This is not the time to isolate, though that may be the strongest impulse. See your doctor or let a friend or family member know you are not doing well. It is important to learn to manage the stressors and to make self-care a priority.


  • Talk. Talk. Talk. Don't hold in the thoughts and feelings you are having as the caregiving burdens mount and overwhelm you. Just talking it out is a great stress reliever. Caregiver support groups are in almost every community. Find one!
  • Share. Share. Share. When someone offers to help, say YES! Create a list of tasks that need to be done, keep it handy and when a well-meaning friend says, "How can I help?" you have an answer. Write down caregiving worries (finances, transportation, relationships) and share it with someone you trust.
  • Move. Move. Move. If exercise were a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed drug on the planet. The benefits of even 30 minutes of walking a day are widely documented. If getting to the gym or the pool or a yoga class is difficult, keep it simple; head outdoors and just start walking.
  • Make Time: Get a friend, neighbor, or relative to give you a caregiver-break. Go shopping. Have lunch or dinner with a friend. Go to a movie. Take a nap. Find something you never have time to do anymore and do a bit of it during the break.
  • Take Time: Caregiving inevitably interferes with a job. Know your rights. Learn what you are entitled to in the workplace, under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Caregiving does not have to cost you your job. Click here:
  • Check Under the Hood: Yours, not the car's. Caregivers spend a lot of time taking their loved ones to doctors' appointments. Make sure you see a doctor for yourself while you are there. Don't ignore new or chronic pain or discomfort. Get it checked out.
  • You Can't Do It All: Seek out technologies and ideas that promote your loved one's independence and reduce your physical strain. Perhaps a nurse or assistant can help in the mornings with bathing and dressing. Consider installing an easy access shower, bathtub, ramp or stair lift in the house.

Additional reporting by Laura Coverson.

Allison ReynoldsAllison ("Ali") Reynolds is a freelance writer, blogger and volunteer who has compiled free resources on caregiving and end of life planning available online at: She is also a consultant for business start-ups and entrepreneurs with "The Get Smart Group." Ali Reynolds can be reached via email at:

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