Alzheimer's Caregivers May Need Care

By Diana Post, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

People who care for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease may get sick from the stress, a study suggests. The study included 153 people with Alzheimer's and their family caregivers. The caregivers' average age was 61. In the 6 months before the study, 1 out of 4 caregivers ended up in a hospital. Some just went to an emergency room. Others were admitted. Depressed people were more likely to go to a hospital. So were those who took care of someone with behavior problems or poor function. The study was in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. HealthDay News wrote about it November 20.

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

We often do not think about the difficulties of caring for patients with Alzheimer's disease. But clearly we all need to pay attention to the people who provide care to people with long-term (chronic) illnesses. This study shows that caregivers themselves often need to go to the emergency room or be admitted to a hospital. The rate of these visits is much greater than the population at large. Why is this?

Many Americans care for an ill family member or a friend each year. Often this is a 24-hour-a-day job, with little help from others. It can be a long-term commitment. And it is a very difficult job.

Caring for an Alzheimer's patient can be especially stressful. More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. Usually it begins after age 60.

The disease damages the brain. It harms memory, judgment and other brain functions. It is the most common cause of dementia in this country.

People with Alzheimer's may have memory loss and problems with speaking. They may not recognize objects or family members. They may not be able to follow simple instructions, go shopping, manage money or take medicines. They may get lost if they go out for a walk or drive.

Frequently, they develop personality changes, anxiety or depression. They may have delusions. Sometimes they become aggressive. Gradually, people with this disease lose the ability to do most normal daily activities.

Caring for these loved ones can be overwhelming. Caregivers often have no relief from the daily work of caring for a person with Alzheimer's. Sometimes they must juggle care of their loved one with their job and household chores. The stress can be overwhelming. Caregivers can get sick or have other problems.

This article points out the need to find out and address these needs and problems. We must make sure someone is, in fact, caring for the caregivers.

What Changes Can I Make Now?

If you are caring for someone who is ill, remember to care for yourself as well.

  • Take advantage of resources in your area. There may be programs to help you. Call your local Area Agency on Aging or state Office on Aging. You can also check the Eldercare Locator at www.eldercare.gov. Ask about visiting nurse services, Meals-on-Wheels and adult day care programs. Find out if "respite" programs are available nearby. These programs are designed to give caregivers a break.

  • Your family member may be able to get special supportive services funded by the government. These can include transportation, home health aides, and even legal assistance. Check it out!

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. Talk to other family members, neighbors, friends and your doctor.

  • Try to take care of yourself. See if someone can "cover" you so you can take breaks from caregiving. Try to exercise regularly. And don't forget to see your doctor for regular checkups.

  • Stay in touch with friends. It is important to continue your social, religious and exercise activities.

  • Learn the symptoms of caregiver stress. You may feel anxious, angry, depressed or irritable, or have trouble sleeping. See your doctor if you need help.

  • Financial worries often add to the stress of the caregiver. Speak to a lawyer, and ask other family members to help as well. Sometimes Medicare or Medicaid will cover the cost of some help at home.

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More than 5.3 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, with a new person developing the disease every 70 seconds. Americans ages 65 and older with Alzheimer's and dementia pay three times as much in health care costs.