8 Red Flags That an Alzheimer's Caregiver Needs a Break

8 Red Flags That an Alzheimer's Caregiver Needs a Break
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Stress and burnout are the most common problems for those who care for someone with Alzheimer's disease. And, in turn, caregiver stress -- the emotional strain of tending to a loved one -- is one of the biggest reasons people with the disease enter nursing facilities.

Take stock of your stress level by asking yourself whether you're experiencing any of the following emotional and physical symptoms. For an even better reality check, have your partner or other loved one answer the questions for you to see what someone close to you thinks.

There's no formula for defining your stress level, but if your yes answers outnumber your no answers, or if just two or three of the categories seem to apply to you, consider taking steps to ease your situation.

A short fuse

  • Do you lose your temper easily?
  • Do you feel angry with your parent?
  • Do you feel irritable toward other family members or find yourself snapping at them?

One of the more obvious signs of caregiver stress is losing your cool easily. Frustration may particularly increase when obstacles or challenges come up, whether major or minor.

Emotional outbursts

  • Do you cry often or unexpectedly?
  • Do you experience feelings of despair?
  • Do you have dramatic mood swings?

It's natural to grieve as your parent's condition declines. It's also normal to feel a complicated range of emotions about having to parent your parent. But if you're increasingly emotional or feeling emotionally fragile, there may be something more going on.

Depression is a real risk for caregivers. Even if you're not clinically depressed, emotional outbursts can be an unconscious outlet for feelings of being overwhelmed.

Next 3 Alzheimer's Stress Indicators

Sleep problems

  • Do you have trouble falling asleep?
  • Do you have trouble staying asleep?
  • Do you wake up tired?

Caregiving -- especially full-time caregiving -- requires tremendous physical effort, even in the disease's early stages. But if your parent is sundowning, wanders, or has disrupted sleep, you lose opportunities to rest on top of the tiring work you do all day. Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep can also be caused by stress, anxiety, and depression.

Significant weight change

  • Have you recently gained weight?
  • Have you recently lost weight?

For some people, stress can result in weight loss when they can't seem to find time to eat adequately or nutritiously. Anxiety often lowers the appetite as well. For others, feeling stressed or guilty leads to weight gain from mindless or emotionally triggered eating, frequent snacking, or quick but unhealthy food choices. Changes in eating and sleeping habits can also indicate depression.

If your weight has changed by more than five or ten pounds since you began caring for your parent, your body may be sending you a signal that you need help.


  • Is it difficult to get motivated to accomplish things?
  • Do you feel sluggish even after a good night's rest?
  • Is it hard to concentrate when you read or perform other mental tasks?
  • Do you feel bored?

Caring for someone with Alzheimer's involves constant vigilance and activity. So if you feel "off" instead of "on," it's hard to perform your duties adequately. It may be that you find parts of the caregiving puzzle more challenging than others -- for example, managing your parent's finances or other health concerns.

Sometimes the routines that people with Alzheimer's thrive on can become stifling to a healthy adult child. Routines do help you and your parent get through the day more easily, but they can leave you feeling like you're stuck in a monotonous rut.

More Signs of Caregiver Fatigue

Physical ailments

  • Do you get headaches often?
  • Have you had colds one after another?
  • Does your back or neck ache, or do you have other chronic pain?
  • Have you developed high blood pressure?

Mental and emotional stress can cause physical disorders. For example, stress can lead to headaches that are more frequent, more persistent, or stronger than you're used to. Under stress, your body is in a constant state of alert, which can cause your body to produce excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol, which can have many effects. You'll also lack the time or inclination to properly take care of yourself, setting the stage for more stress. Caregivers under stress may also find themselves suffering from high blood pressure or more frequent stomachaches, cold symptoms, muscle aches, or other health problems.

Social isolation

  • Do you sometimes go a whole day without seeing another adult aside from your parent?
  • Have you dropped out of your usual activities to care for your parent?
  • Can you remember the last time you had a whole day to yourself?
  • Do you feel like nobody understands?
  • Do you sometimes feel that other family members don't care as much about your parent's fate as you do?

Getting out can simply be hard if you're responsible for providing care. You may feel you lack the time for your former pursuits. Your parent's changes in behavior may also make you feel embarrassed or make going out in public too onerous to attempt. Whether intentionally or not, you may become withdrawn. Unfortunately, social isolation itself contributes to stress, whereas being with others and taking time for yourself are both replenishing.

Complaints from family

  • Have you been accused of being a "control freak"?
  • Have you been told you don't spend enough time with your partner or children?
  • Are arguments with siblings over your parent's care on the rise?

It's a common caregiver temptation -- and mistake -- to take on the entire burden of care. It's also easy to make ourselves think that we have everything under control or that things aren't so bad. Denial is a powerful emotion. When you're in the thick of things, it can be hard to see other ways of doing it. Listening to an outsider can be healthy, even if you don't agree. What may sound like a criticism or complaint may have a nugget of truth that relates to your emotional well-being.

Alzheimer's care can become all-consuming. It's a bit like the frog who stays in the pot of water as the heat is turned up bit by bit; it doesn't realize it's in hot water until it's too late. Every Alzheimer's caregiver eventually needs assistance -- usually sooner rather than later, and usually from a variety of sources.

If you need a hand, know that plenty of forms of help are available. You can make changes in your care routine, enlist the part-time efforts of friends and family, tap into community resources, and hire assistance as well. No Alzheimer's caregiver can go it alone well. And they shouldn't try -- for their sake and their parent's.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 1 year, said...

Ive answered almost all but 2 of the questions. My husband has dementia, repeats himself 15xs, doesnt remember what happened yesterday. Im much younger, hes 93 and I dont have family or friends where I live. I quit my position I had for 8 years to care for him. having a caregiver come in the house is to pricey. Its only a matter of time before I put him in a nursing home. Im overwhelmed, have not 3 minutes for myself. Its beyond exhausting and people just dont understand. They ask about him, but no one asks how Im coping.

over 2 years, said...

hi im a 23 year old 2nd time caregiver for my elderly grandmother who has dementia. my first time being a full time caregiver was for my mother who died of melenoma in 2013 this is the second time ive been placed in the role of full time caregiver. my gram was diagnosed almost a year ago with dementia and she reached the stage that she could no longer be alone earlier this year , before her companion an older man was keeping an eye on her. she is my fathers mother and my father , my younger brother ( who no longer lives with us ) and I are whats left of her immediate family. my dad tried to get her to go into assisted living, she wouldnt, and she had made my father promise her that he would never put her in a home and she didnt want someone to come and stay with her at her house. i was in community college learning how to be a massage therapist when my father told me that she would be moving in with us and then he asked me to take care of her, i didnt have much of a choice so i said i would and he said he would pay me monthly. i quit school i had screwed up one of my classes and would've had to take the years course all over again on top of clinic which would not have worked out with me taking care of gram. she moved in in august and i decided not to go back to school, i now care for her full time so my father can work to pay the bills. i get rare days where grams compainon will take her so my father and i can get things done around the house that we wouldnt have been able to do with her there. i rarely get to se my friends who are thankfully very understanding and have yet to decide that im not worth their time anymore. i havent been to the doctor since before my mother passed and my cycle is so irregular from the stress that i go months without my "Friend" visiting, ive gained weight, i snap at my father who gets pissed and stars yelling at me and .i get so frustrated at gram that i literlly have to bite my hand to keep from losing my shit on her out of aggervation. I know i am depressed but ive reached a point that on the many rides that i take gram on to entertain her that i had a calm casual thought about plowing my car into a tree and just ending it all. it happened again the other day when i was doing dishes and was washing a knife and i thought again, just completely calm rational though of pressing the knife to my skin until i bled. i dont know what to do anymore dad hates when i leave him alone with gram to take a few hours for my sanity. and then i feel guilty for needing a moment to myself even though i know that i need it. i feel like im losing my mind and im just emotinally dead much of the time now. any advice from anyone who feels this way?

over 2 years, said...

my mom has dementia. I take care of her. I love my mom but she isdriving me crazy. she forgets every ten mins. and then repeats herself. I get so frustrated. what can I do

about 3 years, said...

The wrong behavior is deployed in our time because doing the right thing is complicated and .... Hard work. I care for my 95 year old grandmother 7 days a week 15 hours a day 105 hours a week. I have now become a much different human than I once was. Anger, disappointment , loneliness and darkness are my new companions . Of all the things I've lost I miss my faith in people most.

over 3 years, said...

This is pretty scarey. I answered "yes" to all but one question...I don't get colds frequently. I have the job of caregiving of which I am totally unqualified physically, mentally, emotionally or professionally. I have no nursing skills whatsoever. I vomit at the sight of it, blood or other body fluids. And yet, here I am caring for my elderly husband (15 years my senior). I have no family to help, no friends or support (church and friends all went away a year ago). But for my faith in a loving God to sustain me, I would have cratered years ago, and even so, there are days when I am certain I will. There's a lesson here to be learned. I hope I'm learning it.

over 3 years, said...

This web site is very helpful. At first I learned much more about symptomms of dementia and what to expect. I do not reach out, but I read the newletter when it shows up on my account. I get a lot of info that doctors never provide (lack of time, interest?). As for my own situation being back in Europe my friends are on the other side. I can't get away. I have been taking care of my mother now since September 1995, but it gets harder as she is now in a world of imagination and she really has nasty feelings towards me.;;however, I have now a dog for the past five years and since I do not live far from her I go in the morning and again in the evening, then I return to my own place. I do have a lot of the symptoms of stress and depression. I do not have any projects, I live on a day to day basis, and have no motivation for very much. However, having my dog with me is the best thing I can do for me at the moment. I have lots of anger and also guilt feelings when I get mad at her. I also worry that I could be mistreating her and it is a scary feeling. But I take it one day at the time. My sister and niece do not go to see her; once in a while we go to her place for lunch, but since she sees them in her hallucinations it does not bother her. Any way thank you for all the advice and the information I get from your site.

over 3 years, said...

All sounds good advise for some but NOT for ALL! It has been 4 yrs plus and burnout yes today and all the days and nights before. Life is adjusted for your spouse or love one not YOU. When to get a break if you are one of MANY who also WORK full time or part time and addition to Keeping things afloat. This economy DOESNOT HELP! Dept of aging is overwhelmed with others. Never was on welfare and when you need help you can't or( middle Class) are put through so much paper work that what do they want you to do give up well that is not an option. God Bless Many Hugs to ALL of YOU are doing what I am what I am and then some!

almost 4 years, said...

Hello, Thank you for sharing your caregiving experiences with this thread. I am sorry to hear of the challenges you are facing. The article: "How to Pay for In-Home Care": http://www.caring.com/articles/pay-for-in-home-care may be helpful in finding affordable care so that you can take a break. If I can assist you with additional resources, please let me know.

almost 4 years, said...

Caring for spouse with Lewy Body Dementia. He was dx about 4 yrs ago ( pretty sure there were symptoms much earlier) . I am on duty 24/7 feeling trapped,know that I am headed for burn out - am taking steps to get more help in home or day care (or both). He resents the whole idea of help (wondering why I even mentioned it to him). Either way, paying for help is expensive, those financially well off can handle it - those without have many options---it is the middle income group that takes the hit (as usual).

about 4 years, said...

Was not sure how to go about asking, but how, when and how do other caregivers get it take breaks? Just wondering as it not easy.

about 4 years, said...

I guess I really need a break, but not possible.

over 4 years, said...

I've had many of the symptoms listed here and though I don't get much more help, I've learned to let thing go that are not critical to Mom's care... Thanks for the great advise and insight. As always, Love, hugs and prayers of peace to all of us on this journey... Roger

over 4 years, said...

A lot of these questions I had to answer yes to. My mother has Alzheimer's but she is still aware of people around her. My family helps out, but their busy schedules frequently interfere with my "night off". My mother is aware of who is around her and she will not accept a care giver who could come and stay for the day, and she would *never* stay at an Alzheimer's day care. In her mind, she doesn't have a problem--she is perfectly normal. We live in my Mom's home to take care of her. When I do get to go out for the evening she is angry when I get home. She thinks I've been gone all day when it's only been an couple of hours.

over 4 years, said...

this is my life now. Very accurate observations and assessment.

almost 5 years, said...

My father-in-law has lived with my husband and I for 7 years with no break from his sister. It has taken a toll on my marriage to the point I have moved out..has anyone else experienced this. Any suggestions. I feel resentment and anger towards my husband, and family.

almost 5 years, said...

This helped me to know that I'm doing okay but also helped me to know what to be aware of.