Body, mind & spirit

Body, mind & spirit


Taking Care of the Caregiver: Managing Stress that can Lead to Health Issues

Caregivers or patient advocates usually spend many hours in doctor’s offices, hospitals or clinics. But beset by stress for a loved one, they may go from crisis to crisis without stopping to consider their own health. “They’re not there to just discharge like a battery until there is nothing left of them,”says Dr. Dean Shull, a psychiatrist and president of the Polk County Medical Association. “Some people may need therapy.”

“It’s a remarkably stressful endeavor with poor health outcomes,” says Kristen Carpenter, postdoctoral psychology researcher at Ohio State University. Dr. Shull suggests caregivers need to embrace the pain of their circumstances. “One of the primary things I would try to avoid is denial of what’s happening,” he says.

Some form of escape from negative circumstances is in order. For those who believe in God, it may take the form of meditation or making themselves available to God, Dr. Shull says. Others may want to be mindful – or open − to the beauty of the Earth as well as pain stemming from an ill loved one. “People have various levels of skills. Some people would need to be led, taught,” he says.

When there is chronic debilitation, the caregiver has a chance to grieve while offering care. Whatever they do, caregivers should not bottle their emotions. They should keep active with friends and social groups. “Keep yourself alive enough so if somebody tells you a joke you can still laugh,” Dr. Shull suggests.

If caregivers find themselves struggling to cope, they need to ask for help. Maybe they are crying more, their sleeping habits have changed, they’re losing weight, or not seeing much of their friends.A psychiatrist can teach them coping mechanisms. Caregivers also may benefit by having someone take over chores such as house cleaning or yard work.

Studies have corroborated the negative effects on caregivers’ health. A man caring for his wife with breast cancer can face negative health effects even after diagnosis and treatment, according to recent findings from Ohio State researchers.

Thirty-two men participated in the study, with 16 whose wives had experienced a breast cancer recurrence an average of eight months before the study began and approximately five years after the initial cancer diagnosis. The men who reported the highest levels of stress surrounding their wives’ cancer were at the highest risk for physical symptoms and weaker immune system responses, the findings showed.

“This study was a cross-section, just a snapshot of caregivers with patients who were between four and six years post diagnosis,” says Carpenter, who coauthored the study. “These partners are still facing health problems four, five, six years later.” The research was published in a recent issue of the journal, Brain, Behavior and Immunity (February 2012).

Kathy Decker, an oncology social worker at Lakeland Regional Cancer Center observes that it’s important for husband and other caregivers to be sensitive to women’s insecurities. “Women have body image issues due to surgeries and hair loss during chemo[therapy],” Decker states. On the same token, however, Decker also says that caregivers should never feel guilty about taking care of their own health or making time for fun. After all, by keeping one’s health in check, caregivers can ensure that they will be fit to care for those who need them.



story by Cheryl Rogers and Renee Lee


Categories: Columns, Health News