Exhausted caregivers’ stress hormone levels like those suffering PTSD

In a 2007 CNN Health article, Andree LeRoy, M.D. describes “caregiver syndrome,” a combination of physiological and psychological negative health changes that frequently occur in cases of extended caregiving. The article advocates for expanded caregiver support systems, increased practical help for caregivers, and caregiver education.

Many exhausted, ill caregivers today don’t seek help because they don’t realize that they have a recognizable condition. According to a report from the National Consensus Development Conference on Caregiving, the most common psychological symptoms of caregiver syndrome are depression, anxiety and anger. Peter Vitaliano, a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Washington and an expert on caregiving, said that the chronic stress of caring for someone can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and a compromised immune system. In severe cases, caregivers can take on the symptoms of the person that they care for, he said. For example, a person caring for someone with dementia may develop progressive memory loss. Worse still, this syndrome can lead to death. Elderly caregivers are at a 63 percent higher risk of mortality than noncaregivers in the same age group, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh researchers Richard Schulz and Scott Beach reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 1999.

Vitaliano suggests that the physical symptoms are a result of a prolonged and elevated level of stress hormones circulating in the body. He likened exhausted caregivers’ stress hormone levels to those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Caregivers are usually so immersed in their role that they neglect their own care, said Vitaliano. The stress is not only related to the daunting work of caregiving, but also the grief associated with the decline in the health of their loved ones. The majority of caregivers go through a period of shock followed by a major adjustment in their roles. Such emotions are reflected in online discussions among caregivers such as one at the Alzheimer’s Association Online Community. A number of spouses described their role slowly evolving from partnership into a nurse-patient relationship. The caregivers described the difficulty of the change and talked about feeling anger, resentment and guilt. They also suggested that in such an emotional state, it’s difficult to provide high-quality care to their loved ones.
[Source: CNN.com/2007/HEALTH Read the full article]

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