The Toll of Caregiving – When the Strain of Caring for Others Leads to Substance Abuse

The Toll of Caregiving - When the Strain of Caring for Others Leads to Substance Abuse For some, the burden of caregiving can seem unbearable - whether you’re caring for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s or parenting a child with cerebral palsy. It is, without question, a challenging way to live: attending to your loved one’s personal hygiene, going back and forth to doctor’s appointments, preparing meals and ensuring he or she eats, and so on. The stress is serious enough that it causes some caregivers to turn to alcohol or drugs in a desperate attempt to cope.  This can turn the tables on a caregiver – putting them in the position to need care in the form of alcohol or drug rehab.

The Impact of Caregiving

Caring for the needs of another can be rewarding. Caregivers often feel that the responsibility adds meaning to their lives or peace of mind that they are strengthening their relationship with a loved one.

However, there are many downsides to taking on such a daunting task. For example, the responsibilities of caregiving often take a significant physical toll. It’s not uncommon for those who must constantly tend to the needs of others to suffer from headaches, insomnia and weight loss or gain. They often begin to feel the physical strain that comes from helping a loved one use the restroom, washing their hair regularly, or lifting them in and out of a wheelchair. Perhaps you can relate – you may be dealing with similar issues or have even suffered injuries related to your role as a caregiver.

The physical effects are just part of the picture. There are emotional and financial costs to caregiving as well. Caregivers report high levels of depressive symptoms. Dementia caregivers have been found to be particularly vulnerable to higher rates of depression and stress, as well as lower rates of general well-being. Overall, caregivers report a lower quality of life [3].  As a caregiver, you may struggle with anxiety or social isolation. You might be frustrated or angry that you’re the one who has to be responsible for a family member’s care.  Additionally, you may suffer financial strain if you lose time from work or need to take on additional expenses.

Feeling the burden of caregiving doesn’t necessarily end when an ill loved one is placed in long-term care. One study found that caregiver depression and anxiety did not decrease when a relative, especially a spouse, was moved to a care facility [4]. Your duty may have ended, but the emotional impact still lingers.

When the negative effects of caregiving are combined, they may actually increase mortality rates in those doing the caregiving.  For example, a study of individuals between the ages of 66 and 96 who cared for their spouses and who also reported caregiver strain found that their mortality risk was 63% higher than those in a non-caregiving control group [5].

Caregiving and Substance Abuse

The high stress of caregiving can make you vulnerable to substance abuse, which can lead to a serious problem that requires alcohol or drug rehab. As a caregiver, perhaps you began with a glass of wine every night to relax; now you drink until you pass out. Or maybe you’ve started dipping into your loved one’s pain medication.  Before you know it, you have an addiction that is interfering with every aspect of your life.

Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, an addiction puts your health at risk. It negatively affects your body in a variety of ways, including the potential for serious damage to your liver and other organs. Alcohol and drugs affect the brain as well, altering how you think and interfering with your ability to make good decisions – for yourself as well as for the person in your care.  You may also suffer financially, by lost income due to missed work days (for example, because you’re hungover) or from losing your job altogether.

Your substance abuse also puts the person in your care at risk. You’re less likely to be able to respond to his or her needs, including dispensing medications properly, caring for his or her personal hygiene, or calling for help if there is a medical emergency. In addition, studies have shown that caregivers who use are more likely to abuse the person in their care [6]. If you’re intoxicated or high, you may do something you’ll regret like strike the person in your care if he or she is uncooperative or fussy.

As you can see, if you’re using substances to cope as a caregiver, the potential risks and costs can be extremely high.  Not only are you putting yourself at risk for a variety of problems, you’re also endangering the person who’s been entrusted to your care.

Treatment for Caregiver Substance Abuse

You can’t adequately care for a loved one if you’re not healthy -- and abusing substances is not a healthy way to cope with the stress. Substance abuse is a mental health condition that requires professional alcohol or drug rehab treatment. An addiction therapist or counselor will help you determine the type of treatment you need.  If you’re substance abuse issue is serious, you may need inpatient treatment. If you get help sooner than later, outpatient treatment may be sufficient.  But you won’t know until you have an assessment.

If you are the primary caregiver, you may need assistance finding a person or organization able to care for your loved one while you’re in treatment. A family member or close friend of the patient may be able to step into the caregiving role.  You may find that they were already aware of the substance abuse issue (or at least suspected it) and are more willing to help than you might expect. Don’t let pride get in the way of asking for help.

In situations where others cannot or will not step in to assume the caregiving role, reach out for assistance. Your addiction counselor or team may be able to provide some helpful resources. Also, consider contacting local agencies, such as social services, for recommendations for skilled daycare or other care options. It’s critical to check out every available option. Please don’t give up on treatment because it is a challenge to find care for your loved one.

Once you begin alcohol or drug rehab treatment, your job is to focus on getting yourself well. As you work toward your sobriety, talk to your treatment center team to determine if or when you can return to your caregiving role.

If you do return, it will be essential to continue to care for yourself by making lifestyle changes that support your recovery. To stay healthy and abstinent, you’ll need to take time every day to step away from your responsibilities and take care of yourself.  This might include things like taking a walk around the block, having coffee with a friend, or working on a project that relaxes you.

Finding support is another critical tool for long-term recovery -– especially for caregivers who often struggle with isolation. Consider joining a self-help group that can provide support and guidance for those living with an addiction. Regular meetings will allow you to connect with other addicts so you can learn and share experiences.

In addition to support for your addiction, it’s also important to find support in your role as a caregiver. Locate a local support group with members who are going through the same experiences as you. For example, you might find it beneficial to connect with similar caregivers, such as other mothers of kids with autism or spouses who care for partners with dementia.

Substance abuse hurts not only you, but also the person you’re caring for. Alcohol or drug rehab can help you overcome it. The journey may not be easy - in fact, you can expect some setbacks -but you will learn healthy coping strategies so you can get well and, if possible, continue in your role as caregiver. You and your loved one don’t deserve any less.

Posted on June 17th, 2013

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