As caregivers, we often worry about loneliness as it relates to our aging parents. It’s easy to forget that caregivers are often at just as great a risk of becoming lonely as their senior loved ones. What’s more, those feelings of loneliness can jump-start cycles of bad behaviors that exacerbate the problem. So how do you start dealing with loneliness? Taking a deeper look at this difficult feeling can help put parameters around it, enabling caregivers to confront those emotional burdens they often bear alone.
What Causes Caregiver Loneliness?
Caregivers can feel isolated, especially when their siblings or other family members can’t relate to their struggles. Special challenges, such as caring for a parent with dementia, can make those feelings of isolation seem even worse. A parent coping with this new phase of life can also add to a caregiver’s distress, making him feel unappreciated.
The scheduling adjustments necessary to caregiving can make it difficult for caregivers to participate in their usual social activities, keeping them from seeing their friends. After a time, friends may stop reaching out, thinking that the caregiver doesn’t have time to interact or is otherwise withdrawn.
Mental and Physical Dangers of Dealing With Loneliness
The emotional toll of loneliness can be incredibly detrimental to a caregiver’s sense of well-being. But the perpetually lonely also risk their physical health. A 2010 meta-analysis revealed that loneliness has “twice the impact on early death as obesity,” according to psychologist John Cacioppo. Loneliness can also cause sleepless nights, interrupted sleep, worried thoughts, and an increased in the stress hormone cortisol.
Further research suggests that loneliness can feel the same way to the brain as physical pain, add to the problems of reduced sleep, and perhaps even increase the risk of dementia. What’s more, when you feel bad you’re more likely to engage in unhealthy activities, such as skipping exercise and overeating.
How to Combat Caregiver Loneliness
There’s no doubt that caregiving can take an emotional toll on the caregiver. The good news is that you can take steps to stave off loneliness.
- Seek out caregiver support groups. This is especially important for people whose friends or family who don’t understand their role in caring for a senior parent or loved one. Meeting with others who are experiencing the same things as you can help you feel understood and less alone.
- Work on your work/life/caregiving balance. Caregivers who feel as though they don’t have time to socialize are encouraged to call in reinforcements. Reach out to siblings, community care workers, or hired professionals who can share your workload. People with strong social connections feel more resilient, so small setbacks have less of an impact on them. Problems like an illness or fall are more easily worked through by someone who has people to talk with and can release emotional anxiety.
- Take time to exercise. Even a short, daily walk can have positive effects on your health.
- Talk to a therapist. Don’t be afraid to seek out counseling if you feel as if you have no one to talk to about your frustrations. Counselors are excellent resources who can help you stave off loneliness and better manage your caregiving role.
While dealing with loneliness is not uncommon for caregivers, it’s important to recognize that these lonely feelings are not permanent. Knowing more about loneliness and seeking out the help and resources you need can help you combat loneliness and stay healthy, both emotionally and physically.