Thinking about Stress: Part 1

There is no question that caring for a loved one can, and often does, cause a good deal of stress. Judging by the frequency with which people remind me to take care of myself, caregiver stress seems to be common knowledge. I find, however, that the degree of stress can vary tremendously from one person to another. I don’t think that variation is well understood.

That leads me to a favorite topic of mine: generalizations. All of us depend heavily on them. They are often very useful; however, applying a general pattern to a specific situation (in this case, the stress of an individual caregiver) calls for more detailed information about the specific caregiver and her/his situation.

I usually think about three major elements that play a role in stress experienced by a specific caregiver like myself. One is the sources of stress. Some things produce a lot of stress. Others produce very little. A second category is the personal experience and characteristics  of the caregiver. Some people find it difficult to deal with stress. Others find it less so. The third category involves the things a caregiver can do to reduce or minimize stress. In today’s post and the one following, I would like to comment on how those three come together in my particular case.

As Kate’s care partner I have experienced stress, and that stress has increased as her Alzheimer’s has progressed. As I look to the future, I believe that stress will likely increase. On the other hand, stress seems to be less of a problem for me than for many others. I say that based on reading a variety of online forums for caregivers as well as over thirty books by caregivers who have provided vivid accounts of their experiences. When I consider what they have been through, I see good reasons for my feeling less stress, and the three elements I mentioned above provide an explanation. In this post, I will deal with two of them.

Sources of Stress

All stressors are not equal. The ones I confront are minimal compared to those of other caregivers. The load I carry is simply not as great as that of theirs.

In the first place, I was at a point in my career when I could retire to devote my attention to Kate. Many caregivers have a variety of other responsibilities that also demand their attention. I am especially mindful of spouses who have to continue working to pay the bills and can’t afford to hire someone to help. There are many women who are not only working and caring for one or both parents but also care for children. I am familiar with their stories and recognize the struggles they are facing.

Kate has also been easier to care for than many other people with dementia. It is true that she has been somewhat more irritable, especially as the disease has progressed, but that pales in comparison to other situations with which I am familiar.

In addition, neither Kate nor I has had to deal with any other serious illnesses. That is unusual for people our age. We are approaching eighty, and Alzheimer’s is the only significant health issue for us. I have been sensitized to this fact when Kate has had a cold. That creates an extra demand for me, but it is nothing compared to other chronic illnesses.

Personal Experience/Characteristics of the Caregiver

Many caregivers for a person with dementia have little experience with the disease. They begin from scratch. Often, they are children caring for one or both parents. They face a steep learning curve that calls for knowledge of the disease itself while adjusting to the new role of parent care. This has to be incredibly stressful.

Kate and I had been caring for our parents and my father’s significant other for twenty-two years at the time of her diagnosis. Her father had a stroke and her mother vascular dementia. My mother had an unspecified form of dementia; my dad’s significant other had vascular dementia, and my father had a stroke. I feel as though everything I had learned from those experiences prepared me to care for Kate.

I also believe my personality makes caregiving easier for me than for others. I can’t take credit for that. I thank my dad. He was the same way. He kept his sense of humor and focused on everything he could see as positive and minimized the negative. He was a problem solver in his work and in his personal life. He had faith there was a solution to every problem he encountered. I think I am a bit more realistic than he was, but I recognize many ways in which he and I are similar.

If it were only the things I have outlined above, I believe my stress would have been less than that of other caregivers, but there is more. It involves the variety of ways in which I have been able to minimize my stress. I’ll save that for another day.

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