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Caregivers, Alcohol & Substance Abuse

Caregiving is a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding job. Whether you are a professional caregiver or a non-paid family caregiver, the toll it takes on your own well-being can be significant. In fact, caregivers often develop health problems of their own. One of which is alcohol or substance abuse.

Estimates are that as many as 10-15% of health care professionals will experience some form of substance abuse during their career.

For the 44 million family caregivers, the results are similar. Almost half of all family caregivers take more medication than they did prior to assuming a caregiving role. About 10% of family caregivers are thought to be substance abusers.

What Leads a Caregiver to Develop Negative Behaviors?

A variety of factors can contribute to a caregiver developing negative behaviors, such as smoking, abusing alcohol or substance abuse. A few of the more common ones include:

  • Anxiety and fear about how well they are managing caregiving duties
  • Stress from juggling so many responsibilities
  • Sadness and even clinical depression that results from watching a loved one’s decline
  • Pain from an injury caused by the physical demands of caregiving (i.e. back or neck pain)
  • Isolation that is the result of a care recipient who isn’t safe staying alone
  • Resentment towards siblings who don’t help with caregiving
  • Anger at being placed in such a difficult position
  • Long-standing, unhealthy family dynamics

People who care for a senior with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia are at especially high risk for abusing drugs or alcohol.

Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol and Substance Abuse in Caregivers

Because the duties of caring for a senior often add up slowly, a caregiver might not recognize how stressed and anxious they’ve become. Or how isolated.

What might have started out as a glass of wine in the evening to “relax” may evolve into drinking multiple glasses throughout the day. Or a prescription medication prescribed at bedtime to beat insomnia turns into one that is taken several times each day.

Even more troubling? When a caregiver begins taking medications prescribed for the person they are providing care to.

What are the warning signs that you or a caregiver you love might be abusing drugs or alcohol?

Here are a few signs of alcohol and substance abuse among caregivers:

  • Sleepiness and lethargy that doesn’t go away
  • Increased feelings of agitation
  • Quick to anger
  • Unintended weight gain or loss
  • Financial problems or inability to account for missing money
  • Reliance on alcohol or drugs to make it through the day

Recovery Programs for Caregivers

While helping a family caregiver recover likely means relieving them of some of the duties of this demanding role, it may take more to break the habit.

If there aren’t other family members or friends who can pitch in while the caregiver seeks treatment, look to in-home care agencies who may be able to help or call your local agency on aging. They typically maintain a list of respite care programs offered by home care agencies or assisted living communities. This short-term care solution can provide the caregiver the time they need to recover.

From there, it’s important for the caregiver to seek help. Often the best place to start is by scheduling an appointment with a primary care physician. They can conduct a physical exam to assess the situation and refer the caregiver to an appropriate treatment program.