Caregiving May Be Hazardous to Your Health

For most of us, providing health care for a loved one will be unavoidable. However, being aware of the risks, and using some coping tools will help make the journey smoother.

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.


Individuals needed to care for a personal friend or family member with a chronic illness or severe injury. No training available. Responsibilities include setting up and meeting multiple medical appointments, periodic hospitalization of patient during crisis episodes, long hours of bedside care, little sleep or time for personal needs. High levels of stress resulting in friction at home and work can be expected along with deterioration of personal health and emotional status. Expect few benefits and work schedule includes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no pay or remuneration.


Unless you or I were a member of Mother Theresa’s order, there would be a very slim chance we would ever volun­teer for such a position as men­tioned above. Yet most of us, can expect that at some time, we will find ourselves in a posi­tion of providing care for some­one—child, parent, relative, or a even a close friend—with health-care needs. 

I’ve Become My Mother’s Mother

Even though my very talented, gentle, and caring mother had been showing increasing signs of forgetfulness and periodic confusion, it was still a shock when she received the medical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s—a debilitating, untreatable, eventually termin­al brain disease. Why was this happening to someone who enjoyed life so much, who loved people, and who had a life history of good health? Even though a health professional, I struggled with these questions.

As my mother progressed from occasional confusion, to forgetting how to dress, bathe, or use the bathroom, to forgetting a stove could be hot, to wandering away and getting lost, to forgetting friends and family, to hallucinating frightful things, to bouts of anger and striking family members, to forgetting how to eat, then forgetting how to talk, to forgetting who I am, I was even more unprepared at my own profound emotional reaction along the way as I lost her little by little.

During my years working as a nurse, caring for sick people with all manner of illnesses and health conditions, I periodically found myself emotionally involved with particularly sad or critical cases. But even this did not prepare me for the effects I experienced personally as my own mother progressed through her illness. While mother had always been my strong support, my advisor, my advocate, and my spiritual teacher, slowly I realized our roles were reversing. She was now the helpless, dependent child, and I had become her parent, helping with her care as I would my three-year-old granddaughter. There is nothing in life that prepares one for such a transition, and the emotional effects are beyond description.

At one point I became de­pressed, with symptoms includ­ing inability to concentrate, bouts of tearfulness, and a feel­ing of loss and hopelessness. I was amazed at the psychological and physical effects such an ex­perience could have, and even more amazed to realize that it was happening to me!


When I worked as a nurse in the Emergency Room, our staff often kept a watchful eye on family members of any pa­tient who came in with severe injuries, illness, or a life-threat­ening condition. It was not un­common for a family member or friend to develop simultane­ous symptoms themselves pro­found enough to need emergency treatment. The physi­ological effects of illnesses and injuries are not limited only to the patient. A number of stud­ies have recently been dedicated to determining the effects of ill­nesses and injuries upon those close to the patient—family or friend caregivers. What causes these effects and what can help? What exactly are some of the stresses caregivers can experi­ence, and why?

Financial Strain

The cost of medical care, medications, and comfort mea­sures can put a strain on house­hold finances. A sense of duty, obligation, and guilt often en­courage feelings of needing to show care and support through financial avenues even though this means added debt bur­dens.

Emotional Stress

Feelings of increased sadness, irritability, fatigue, guilt, and helplessness are not uncommon. These feelings, if left unaddressed, can lead to depression. Women (more often the primary caregivers) are more prone to lower levels of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and physical health than men caregivers.


Day-by-day demands with a doubtful prognosis can create a sense of hopelessness resulting in depression. Caregiver de­pression and burdens increase as the patients functional sta­tus declines. Depression and anxiety disorders found in caregivers can increase signifi­cantly when a loved one has to be placed in an institution or nursing home. Depression can become a serious clinical con­dition needing attention and treatment to avoid further psy­chological complications, including self-destruction.

Harmful Behaviors

In an attempt to cope with increased stress, caregivers are more apt to engage in substance abuse. Prescription medica­tions and psychotropic drugs, even alcohol, are often used. Behavioral episodes of hostility, anger, profound sadness, and social isolation are not uncom­mon as the caregiver struggles to meet and solve all perceived issues and needs.

Physical Health Issues

Stress and insufficient rest, inadequate diet and lack of exercise can result in worsening preexisting health issues or the creation of new ones. Symptoms can include: acid reflux, fatigue, sleep changes, headaches, obesity or weight-loss, slower wound healing, heart disease, increased blood pressure, diabetes, higher levels of cholesterol, body pain, increased susceptibility to illnesses, decreased energy and stamina, and sometimes, in the case of elderly spousal caregivers, earlier mortality.


With everything going on, it’s easy to forget an important rule: We need to take care of ourselves. Burnout can happen even when caring for a dearest loved one. Here are some suggestions to avoid this and other potential problems:

Be Kind To Yourself

Delegate duties. With the help of family and/or friends (and even professional respite agencies), some personal time can be made available for you to get away, rest, recharge, and relax. Get a massage, go out to eat with a friend, attend a concert—do something to encourage a sense of normalcy.

Express Your Feelings

Keep in touch with close, understanding friends. Confide in them. It’s healthy to express yourself and harmful to keep everything bottled up. Keeping a journal is another way to deal with feelings, emotions, and fears. Talking with a financial advisor, counselor, pastor, or health professional can be helpful in dealing with stress, worry, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. Join a support group.

Care For Your Body

While fixing special meals for your loved one, pay attention to your own healthful diet. Drink plenty of water. Get some exercise every day—this alone is a great aid in maintaining good mental health. Remember to care for your own health-related issues.


Focus on the essentials each day, one day at a time. The world won’t end if the house didn’t get cleaned this week or if you can’t invite guests over for Sabbath lunch.

Stay Connected

As a caregiver, it is easy to become so focused on the sick person that a strain is placed on relationships with spouse, children, and friends. Make an effort to stay connected to the people you care about. You need their love and support, and they need you. Stay connected with your church. The involvement and help of a church family can be invaluable at such times—offering not only prayer support but assistance with food, home duties, patient needs, child care, even providing hugs and shoulders to cry on.

Educate Yourself

The more you know about your loved one’s condition and the resources available, the more effective you will be in taking care of both of you. Look online, in a bookstore, or at your local library.

Tap Into the Source of Peace and Strength

“Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7). There is great peace and comfort available if we will only reach out for it. Prayer, Bible promises remem­bered, singing of encouraging hymns, fellowship with loved ones and church family in wor­ship and praise—these activi­ties strengthen faith, and hope. The God who cares for a small, fallen sparrow has even greater compassion for His sick, in­jured, suffering children. He will not leave or forsake us in our struggles, and His promises are true. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

For most of us, providing health care for a loved one will be unavoidable. However, being aware of the risks, and using some coping tools will help make the journey smoother.


Information sources include: About. com, Senior Living, “Why Being a Caregiver is Hard on Your Health;”, “A Better You (Helpful Tips);”, WebMD, “Caregiving: Taking Care of Yourself;”, “Taking Care of the Caregiver;” Holy Bible, King James Version.

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.