How Caring for a Vulnerable Loved One Can Put a Caregiver at Risk for Addiction
Caring for a family member is one of the most selfless roles anyone can take on. Out of love, compassion, and caring, the caregiver puts the needs of a loved one ahead of their own. However, caregiver stress can be extremely draining, physically demanding, and emotionally exhausting. Between running to appointments, completing chores, and running errands, the demands of caring for a loved one can be endless. Watching an aging parent with dementia, schizophrenia, or another mental disorder as they decline can add an extra burden to an already demanding role.
Of the roughly 44 million caregivers in the United States today, it is believed that about half of them take more medication than they did before assuming the role, and it is thought that roughly 10% have a substance abuse disorder. Demands of caregiving also often require their full-time attention, leaving little time for self-care. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and isolation. As a result, many caregivers experience stress, burnout, and mental health issues of their own, which can lead to addiction struggles.
Experiencing some stress is a normal part of everyday life. However, not everybody is a caregiver with the added responsibility of taking on the normal duties and activities of another individual, and by extension their stress. This compounding of stress and anxiety can easily become too much for some individuals, which leads them to seek out ways to manage and cope. The outlet for this stress is not always the healthiest. Even with care and support services, it can be overwhelming to look after those who have mental health issues like dementia or Alzheimer’s, or even those who have come out of rehab themselves. Consider some of the questions below from the caregiver stress test on the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada website to see if caregiver stress is a concern for you:
- Are you experiencing difficulty getting to sleep?
- Have you gained/lost weight recently?
- Do you feel pressure to hold things together?
- Are you spending less time with others?
- Are you having difficulty controlling your temper?
- Do you have stressful dreams?
- Do you get ill more often than you used to, or have you developed chronic health problems?
These stresses and demands can cause caregiver burnout. Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that is often accompanied by a change in attitude. A caregiver may start out positive and caring, but over time they may start to become unconcerned and cold. Here are some symptoms of caregiver burnout:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in leisure activities or hobbies
- Feelings of hopelessness, resentment, or irritability
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Excessive use of alcohol, drugs, sleep medications, or stimulants
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
Burnout can occur when caregivers do not spend time on their own needs and mental health, or if they do more than they are able, either physically or financially. Many caregivers may also feel guilt, shame, or sadness if they take time out for themselves.
Many caregivers find themselves in situations where they lack the resources or skills to cope with the various demands of their new role. These demands not only take a toll on their physical health, but also on their emotional and mental health. Caregiving can be a very thankless role, and for caregivers to not receive gratitude or recognition for their efforts can take a toll on their emotions. Many report feeling anxious, worried, stressed, depressed, or fatigued as a result of the expectations they or others place on themselves.
While many people can endure caregiver stress without relying on people or substances to help them cope, others need support to continue moving forward. While many take medications as prescribed and as a result reap the benefits in a healthy way, others may abuse substances to help cope, or to escape the situation altogether. There are also often various medications in the house for the vulnerable loved one, and the temptation could be too much. As a result, they take the medication intended for the ailing individual.
There is a saying that goes “you can not pour from an empty cup”. Caregivers need to take the time to focus on themselves for their own long-term health just as much for the long-term health of the vulnerable loved one. There is no shame in asking for help and admitting your struggle. There are several things that can be done to reduce the risks of caregiver stress and burnout, such as talking to a trusted friend, family member or therapist, attending a caregiver support group, enlisting respite services and adult daycare, understanding your limits and when to say no, developing healthy tools for coping rather than drugs, alcohol or other substances, and eating right so the caregiver can stay healthy.