In the movie, When Harry Met Sally, we contemplated, “Can men and women really be friends?” When it comes to caregiving our question is, “Are men and women different in dealing with caregiver stress?” According to researchers at Bowling Green State University the answer is a definitive “yes.”
When it comes to coping with caregiver stress, men and women tend to take a Mars vs. Venus approach. Stress is one of the biggest challenges caregivers face and even more so for those 15 million Americans caring for an older parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Several reports and studies in the last several years have found chronic stress and depression can lead to health risks for caregivers and dementia caregivers may be at an even greater risk.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 60 percent of dementia caregivers rate their stress levels as very high and one-third also report depression. A UCLA study found the depression statistic for dementia caregivers may be closer to 50 percent. Often, dementia caregivers encounter additional physical and emotional burdens beyond the typical caregiver activities of bathing, feeding, dressing or administering medications. Dementia caregivers may face a loved one with memory loss, tendency to wander, sundowning, violent outbursts and other issues which take a significant emotional toll creating more physical and psychological stress for the caregiver.
Mars vs. Venus Caregiver Stress
How are men and women are different when it comes to dealing with stress? The Bowling Green State University research study looked at men and women who were caring for an older parent and how they differ in coping with stress. The study found while women are more natural nurturers, they also worry more about their caregiving performance. The anxiety of analyzing how they are handling caregiving and whether their loved one is happy with the decisions they have to make creates constant stress for caregiving daughters.
Caregiving women tend to carry around the anxiety of their caregiving performance creating chronic stress. And this can lead to severe health issues later in life. In fact, a Commonwealth Study found caregivers who suffer from chronic stress are twice as likely as the general population to develop chronic illnesses earlier in life. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, etc. are the end result if women cannot find ways to manage the daily stress of caregiving.
For the men, the approach is sports-driven. Sons caring for an older parent take a block and tackle approach – they have a list of tasks they must perform and they gain satisfaction on accomplishing these goals without worrying about their performance. This led the researchers to conclude the men who are caregivers actually experience less psychological stress.
In addition, the researchers found the men who were caregivers were given more praise by others. The conclusion is society still sees women as the natural caregivers and thus, does not single them out for praise in providing care. The men who become caregivers are seen as rare and thus acknowledged more positively for stepping into a caring role.
Ladies, it’s time to take a page out of the men’s caregiving playbook – let the stress float away.
The Stress Inside
We know ongoing stress can lead to burn-out as well as multiple health problems – headaches, back pain, insomnia and even hypertension leading to serious health risks such as heart attack or stroke. A recent study conducted by Umea University in Sweden found psychological stress in middle age can also be a cause dementia later in life
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 90 percent of doctor visits are stress-related and a National Alliance for Caregiving study of Alzheimer’s caregivers and health risks found dementia caregivers visited their physician’s three times as often as the general public and increased their health care costs by $4,766 per year.
The difficulty is stress is often invisible. It is not like a rash or broken limb which is an obvious sign of a physical health problem. One test for stress is this: Do you have your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth? If so, this is a sign of chronic stress you may not realize you have. Visit the Alzheimer’s web site for a specific test for caregiver stress.
There is also the stress from social isolation and shame. Despite the increased awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, the stigma of dementia remains. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International’s World Alzheimer Report 2012, 25 percent of people with dementia report hiding or concealing their diagnosis due to the stigma surrounding the disease and 40 percent say they are often excluded from everyday life. This extends to their family caregiver who follows their loved one’s lead in keeping the diagnosis hidden.
Finding ways to eliminate the stress inside will lead to a healthier caregiving life. (Read my Huff Post blog on the “Eliminating Caregiver Stress.”