Many of us have become caregivers to an aging parent. In European countries, for example, caregivers make up anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the population. Among the 40.4 million caregivers in the U.S., 44 percent are caring for a parent. In India, almost 70 percent of people over 60 live with family, who become caregivers as needs arise.
If you’re caring for a parent who lives nearby, you might take them to doctors’ visits, cook meals, and run errands for them. If your parent lives in another city, state, or even country, your caregiving likely includes lining up rides to appointments, talking to their doctors, and helping set up and monitor in-home assistance. When parents live with you, caregiving is part of your daily routine.
While rewarding and meaningful, caregiving can also be stressful—mentally, emotionally, and physically. According to a 2020 report from the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 36 percent of family caregivers said their situation was highly stressful.
Though caregiving can feel overwhelming at times, you can navigate the challenges by taking small, strategic steps. Consider these five common signs of caregiver stress and specific strategies for addressing each one.
Sign #1: Feeling exhausted
Whether you’re single with no kids or have a large family, caring for an aging parent adds a lot of responsibility to your already full plate. So even though you might be sleeping through the night, you could still be waking up feeling utterly spent. Or you might feel emotionally drained and find that it takes you longer to complete the simplest tasks.
What to do: Take regular time-outs. Since you probably don’t have hours to practice self-care, think of attending to your needs in bursts. You can take mini mood-boosting, stress-relieving breaks every hour, for example, or at different transitions of the day, like morning, noon, and night.
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of the book “Aging Joyfully,” suggests such restorative respites as meditating for 5 minutes, taking a walk (one study found that walking for just 12 minutes sparked joy and increased energy), savoring a warm beverage, or listening to a favorite song.
While tiny habits may seem trivial, over time they can have significant benefits. A UCLA study found that caregivers who meditated for 12 minutes a day for two months had lower depression levels and improved mental health. Caregivers also had increased telomerase activity, a sign of improvement in stress-induced cellular aging.
Sign #2: Feeling guilty for not doing enough
Do you think that you could (and should) always be doing more for your parent? Do you worry that you’re not doing everything perfectly?
Even though it’s less often discussed, guilt is a common reaction for caregivers, says Manly, who also cared for her aging parents. “Caregivers often feel as if they can’t do enough, whether emotionally, physically, or financially,” she says. Over time, she notes, this guilt can leave caregivers feeling anxious, stressed, and disheartened.
What to do: First, remind yourself that no one can do it all, Manly says. On a practical level, when you’re being pulled in different directions, it can help to write a priority list. In the evening or morning, ask yourself: What top three to five tasks must get done? “This log will help you see what you are accomplishing, and it will reduce anxiety about forgetting or neglecting what is not done,” Manly says.
To further acknowledge your accomplishments, keep a win list. Every night, jot down what you did and what went well—from filling your mom’s prescription to lending emotional support to completing a key work task. “Look at your life objectively,” Manly says. Seeing your various roles and responsibilities, she says, can help you realize that you are doing your best.
Sign #3: Feeling anxious
As a caregiver, you may experience physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of anxiety, such as restlessness, stomachaches, elevated blood pressure, and nervousness. Your thoughts may regularly turn into worries about your parent’s health and overall situation.
What to do: Similar to addressing exhaustion, bursts of activity can help relieve symptoms of anxiety. Consider a short morning workout. If mornings are too hectic, try five-minute sessions throughout the day: stretch your body, run in place, or request a walking meeting at work. Grounding practices are also helpful in reducing anxiety. Try 4-7-8 breathing or tune into the sounds that surround you.
When your worrying thoughts are more persistent and focused on worst-case scenarios, try challenging them by considering if there is potentially a more likely, less disastrous outcome. Feeling overwhelmed and powerless also represents a loss of control. Try focusing on what you can control, regardless of how small, and act on it.
Sign #4: Feeling sadness
Naturally, seeing your once vibrant parent struggle with declining health can be devastating. Maybe you find yourself crying more, reminiscing about fond memories, or grieving the change in roles.
What to do: When feelings of sadness arise, take a self-compassion break. Name exactly how you’re feeling, remind yourself you’re not alone in these feelings (other caregivers are right there with you), and recite a few kind, gentle words. Or listen to meQ’s Emotional Cleanse Meditation to feel your sadness and find some peace. Social bonds help us feel more positive, so try to regularly reconnect with friends, whether through texts, phone calls, or in-person, even if it’s simply running errands together.
Sign #5: Feeling resentment and anger
Caregiving involves many demanding tasks, which puts a strain on your time, resources, energy, and emotions. Feeling resentful and angry about your caregiving situation is common and understandable. Yet on top of their frustration, many caregivers feel guilty about having these less-than-grateful feelings, which only compounds their stress.
What to do: Manly suggests acknowledging your feelings in a nonjudgmental way. For example, you might label your feelings without blaming or shaming yourself for having them: “Right now, I am feeling resentful about these extra responsibilities, and that’s okay.” Next, Manly says, find a healthy outlet to express these feelings, such as journaling, talking to a trusted friend, or moving your body.