Havoc: The Stress Series II

NPR commentator Tim Brookes
started to write a book
about the hospice movement.
Then he got a letter
from his mother in England—
she had terminal pancreatic cancer.
So Tim ended up doing a different book,
Signs of Life: A Memoir of Dying and Discovery.
As he writes about caring for his mother
during that emotional time of their lives,
he expresses what many of us already know:
such care can be stress-producing.
It can wreak havoc on our ability to concentrate,
to pay attention, to carry on normally in life.
He describes once nearly driving into the side
of an ambulance, even with its flashers on,
its siren blaring.
“I had no idea it was there,” he confesses.

Let’s be clear—
stress is not necessarily bad for us.
A limited amount of stress, in fact,
can make life interesting, even exciting.
But when the amount of stress we experience
is more than we bargained for,
when it feels out of control,
when it continues longer than we’d like,
then it’s likely not so good for us.
Unfortunately, our family caregiving
may easily become just that—
more than we bargained for,
going on longer than we wish.
Last month a research project by Ohio State University
and the National Institute on Aging
confirmed what many of us have sensed:
the attendant stresses of extended caregiving
can negatively affect one’s physical health.
Researchers first studied the mothers
of chronically ill children.
Now they’ve studied spouses and children
who care for family members with Alzheimer’s.
Results were the same—often a pattern
of changes in the caregivers’ chromosomes
that influenced how their bodies aged.
No further documentation is needed,
so now they’re studying how to control
or reverse this effect.
In the meantime, it’s important for us to be aware:
too much caregiver stress is not good for us.
And if it’s not good for us,
neither is it good for the one in our care.
We’re too closely linked for that to be otherwise.

As the composer of “The Thoughtful Caregiver,”
I hesitated to write about this study.
Family caregivers don’t need something additional
to worry about, to stew over.
Yet I believe this study’s results are important enough
that they need to be shared.
In other posts I’ll be writing about what we can do
to ameliorate the effects of such stress.
I’d love to hear your ideas too.
Mostly I’d begin with this encouragement:
let’s monitor our levels of stress.
That’s a beginning step we can take.

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