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Caregiver Syndrome

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Dear Dr. Levister: I’ve been caring for my mother who suffers from the effects of a stroke since 2008. I feel frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed and unhappy. Besides medications, what can I do to boost my mood? E.S.

Dear E.S.: This sounds familiar. You may be experiencing an increasingly common yet relatively unknown condition known as "caregiver syndrome." As one of the many Americans who choose to provide support and care for an aging or seriously ill loved one, you are vulnerable to increased stress levels and the emotional and physical symptoms that can result. Caregiver syndrome is a debilitating condition brought on by unrelieved, constant caring for a person with a chronic illness or dementia.

A major cause of caregiver syndrome is the heavy workload caregivers may take on. The stress also stems from grief, as caregivers experience a loved one's declining health. The shift from a partnership to a caregiver-patient dynamic can be very difficult, and in reaction the caregiver may experience shock.

Thus, the changing role-relationship with the seriously ill loved one can trigger the onset of caregiver syndrome.

Major symptoms of caregiver syndrome include: stress, exhaustion, guilt, anger, depression and declining physical health.

Caring for someone long-term may lead to chronic stress. In fact, the stress hormone levels associated with caregiver syndrome are similar to the levels associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Revisit why you are caregiving. Share some photos, cards and ‘good’ memories with your loved one. Remind yourself how much your loved one means to you, and how important it is for her or him to be taken care of. Your sense of purpose may feel renewed.

Once a week stop the clock – make room for enjoyable activities and relaxation time. Smile! Ask for help from another family members or friends. Take a stroll through a local farmers market or spend some ‘idle’ time at the book store. You don’t have to buy anything – just browse – let your mind wonder. Steal away with a cup of tea before your loved one wakes up or after he/she goes to sleep. One of my favorite ways to relax is yoga.

Talk to your doctor. If you feel that you are experiencing symptoms of caregiver syndrome, talk to your doctor about being screened for stress and depression.

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