Mary assists her aging mother two evenings a week and almost all day on Saturday. Her mother, who will soon turn 85, needs help with a growing list of tasks, including shopping for groceries, paying bills, doing laundry, going to the pharmacy and preparing meals.

During a recent conversation with Mary, I called her a wonderful caregiver. To my surprise, she balked at using the term "caregiver," instead insisting that she was just "helping out Mom."

Mary may not want to take on the title of caregiver, but she is indeed fulfilling that role. In fact, more than 65 million Americans provide unpaid care to someone in need. The person in need might be a spouse or partner, parents, children, grandchildren, other relatives, friends, neighbors and even co-workers.

About 15 million (of that 65 million) are providing unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer's or another form of memory loss.

Caregiving for Aging Parents is Stressful

From my own experience, I know caregiving can be a rewarding experience. On the flip side, it can also exact a high toll on the person juggling his or her own life as well as the life of another person.

Stress among caregivers is common. Sometimes the stress is so incredibly high that the caregiver's health is also jeopardized.

Warning Signs of Caregiver Stress

As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don't realize your own health and well-being are suffering. Watch for these warning signs of caregiver stress:

  • Feeling worn out or exhausted 
  • Experiencing feelings of being totally overwhelmed
  • Feeling irritable and angry
  • Thinking negative thoughts, often on a continual loop
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
  • Showing little interest in activities you used to enjoy

Take a good look at this list and see if some or all apply to you.  If they do, then you may be in danger of burnout.

Handling Caregiving Stress

When I was caring for my mother, who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, I began having persistent abdominal discomfort and an aching pain. After a week or so, I also experienced a heaviness in my chest and my breathing felt labored.

The symptoms finally became so intense that I ended up in the emergency room. Thankfully, a battery of tests didn't reveal any significant medical problems, which was good news.

The doctor's diagnosis? Stress.

Looking back, I can clearly see I was severely depressed, anxious, as well as stressed. I had reached the point of burnout. These feelings had taken their toll and had a negative physical impact on my own health. It's difficult to see it in the midst of the caregiver duties, but it can happen.

As a caregiver, you must protect your own health and wellbeing. In my next post, I'll give some ideas on how to do just that.

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Birthday brain: I feel like I'm 28 but I'm almost a senior citizen

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How to care for yourself when you're the caregiver