Few tasks in life are as difficult as that of becoming a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Early on, the job may be mentally exhausting as you struggle to come to terms with the disease, learn to accept your loved one’s cognitive decline, and start to juggle the day-to-day logistics of how you will care for this person. As the disease progresses, you may take on more financial and legal responsibilities as well. Gradually, caregiving becomes more physically taxing as your loved one’s own physical abilities diminish and his cognitive skills erode even further.
Eventually, you will become fully responsible for your loved one’s health, safety, and well-being. It’s a responsibility no one really wants.
Throughout it all, you will face a cascade of overwhelming emotions. You will feel great depths of sadness and loss as you watch your loved one’s personality change and his cognitive, then physical, abilities disintegrate. You will experience anger over the diagnosis and what has become of your loved one and your life. There will be moments of intense frustration over dealing with your loved one’s day-to-day changes in personality and behavior.
You may also feel extremely isolated in your daily struggles and overcome with stress as you try to do it all, especially if you’re also working a job and/or looking after elderly parents, children, or other family members.
Caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s is indeed a life-altering responsibility. The physical, emotional, mental, and financial toll of being a caregiver is increasingly recognized as a serious challenge of the disease. In recent years, support groups have sprung up to specifically address the needs of caregivers.
Researchers have begun examining strategies to improve caregiving, as well as ways that the lives of the caregivers can be enhanced through unique counseling techniques or online support services. Experts are also learning that being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s can have such an incredible mental and physical impact on the caregiver that it ultimately creates an entire new category of patients in the healthcare system.
If your loved one has just been diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, you may not be experiencing any of these problems yet. Or if you’re lucky and blessed with extreme resilience, you may not ever suffer any consequences from your role as caregiver. But for the vast majority of people who become caregivers, it is a grueling ordeal. Knowing how it might affect your health and well-being can help you anticipate and prepare for the mighty task ahead.
WHO ARE THE CAREGIVERS?
No one ever signed up to become a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. And yet, with approximately four million patients in the U.S. and more than half still living at home, there are millions of people serving as caregivers to people who have the disease.
Most caregivers are family members of the person with Alzheimer’s Disease. The majority are spouses, but daughters, daughters-in-law, sons, siblings, and grandchildren are also potential caregivers. In addition, friends, neighbors, and members of a person’s faith community may be involved as well.
Different people will experience caregiving in different ways. While some may suffer family conflict, isolation, and tremendous emotional distress, others may experience a renewed sense of purpose or meaning in life. According to the National Institutes of Aging, research has found that being a male spouse, having a preexisting illness, and getting few breaks from the responsibilities of caregiving tend to make caregivers more vulnerable to the physical and emotional stresses of caring for someone with dementia.