General Medical · Health

Caregiving: Positive Steps to Take

Dr. Riddle Responds:

Dear Shirley,

I am so sorry you and your husband are going through such a difficult time. Caring for a loved one is an incredibly important role, and can also be emotionally and physically exhausting.  What you are describing — including isolating yourself and feeling fatigued and overwhelmed — is often seen in those experiencing caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout includes emotional, social, and physical symptoms. Feelings of irritability, hopelessness and helplessness are common, as is social isolation and withdrawal from family and friends. An individual may lose interest in activities she once enjoyed and struggle with sleep. Often, there are also feelings of physical exhaustion and the individual becomes more susceptible to illness, getting sick more often. For some, these symptoms of burnout can be serious enough to result in depression. The challenges of caregiving can elicit feelings of guilt and frustration, which can be difficult to deal with.

Caregiver burnout is thought to be the result of a variety of factors. Caring for a loved one is complex and as your role shifts from wife to caregiver and back again, this can bring up conflicts. Sometimes the expectations of either the caregiver or patient may be unrealistic.  Expecting yourself to care for your husband entirely on your own may not be practical. This is all compounded by the stress and uncertainty of your loved one’s illness.  

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Caregiver burnout does more than affect your emotional well-being; it can also have deleterious effects on your physical health.  Chronic stress from caring for your loved one can lead to a weakened immune system and increased risk for chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. Women are particularly at risk of weight gain, which further exacerbates chronic health issues. This can be particularly difficult because often the caregiver’s own health needs get set aside for the more pressing needs of the loved one for whom she is caring. For example, over 50 percent of caregivers skip their own doctors appointments.

While caring for a loved one can be overwhelming, there are steps you can take to help address the burnout. First, seek help. Right now, it sounds like you are taking care of your husband alone. That is a great burden to carry alone. Talk to your husband’s physicians about what is going on. They may be able to connect you with additional resources including respite services; your husband may be eligible for some in-home nursing care. Also, please give your children an opportunity to help. They are used to you and your husband being independent and may simply not realize the challenges you are both facing. It may feel uncomfortable asking your children for help, but give them the opportunity. Consider whether there might be discrete ways in which they could lift your burden. Maybe they could pick up your groceries on occasion when they are shopping for their own or take your husband to some of his appointments.  

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By seeking additional help, this will give you more time to do what is so important, which is to care for yourself. By caring for yourself, you will better be able to be there for your husband.  First, make sure you are following up on your own health care needs, including regular appointments with your doctor. Taking care of yourself also means making the time to exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. Part of caring for yourself involves finding emotional supports.  You mentioned that you rarely see your friends anymore; take the time to reconnect with them.  You may be surprised that some of them are likely also caring for loved ones. Right now you are feeling very isolated, but your situation is all too common. In the United States, more than 65 million people, nearly a third of the population, care for an ill, elderly or disabled family member.  You may also consider finding a support group for caregivers either online or in-person. Having contact with others who share your experience can help to normalize the many complex emotions that come with being a caregiver.

Finally, please give yourself credit for the challenges you face as a caregiver and your willingness to be there for your husband. It is an incredible level of caring and commitment and your husband is fortunate to have you in his life. Please take care of yourself so you are able to continue to support him.

Dr. Riddle




Caregiver Action Network. Caregiver Statistics. Accessed on 2/22/16.

Caregiver stress. Accessed on 2/21/16.

Godbout, J. P., & Glaser, R. (2006). Stress-induced immune dysregulation: Implications for wound healing, infectious disease, and cancer. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, 1(4), 421–427.

Recognizing Caregiver Burnout. Accessed on 2/21/16.

Schulz, R, & Sherwood, P.R. (2008). Physical and Mental Health Effects of Family Caregiving. Am J Nurs, 108(9 Suppl), 23 – 27.

Udo, T., Grilo, C. M., & McKee, S. A. (2014). Gender differences in the impact of stressful life events on changes in body mass index. Preventive Medicine. 69:49-53

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  • Deborah Robinson April 4, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you for this informative article! One comment would that there are also many couples who either do not have children living near by or may be childless. This can also make things a little bit more stressful. I think more articles on this topic could be helpful.

  • Karen Free April 4, 2016 at 8:12 am

    I would add have a massage. Touch is so important and is often absent in a caregiver marriage situatuon.