A few years after Stephen Sonnone took on the daily task of caring for his mother, whose mind was steeply declining due to Alzheimer's disease, he suffered from pancreatitis.
He attributes it to his role as his mother's primary caregiver.
"Without a doubt it was the stress," said Sonnone, of South Windsor. "My life as a caregiver changed completely. I used to see her every day up until January or February. Unfortunately, with the stress and the time commitment, I ended up getting sick and ended up in the hospital for five days."
A number of studies and surveys show that caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia often exacts a physical and psychological toll. Several show that Alzheimer's caregivers have a greater risk than the general population for high level of stress hormones, impaired immunity, and greater incidences of hypertension and coronary heart disease.
Caring for a family member with Alzheimer's is particularly fraught with hardship for anyone with a predisposition toward depression, said Todd Richardson, a compliance administrator in the office of research integrity at the School of Social Work in St. Louis.
"Taking on this role as caregiver, the stress can be so severe — and it typically gets worse — and be something that leads to a diagnosis of full-blown depression," he said.
The kind of care that Alzheimer's patients require leaves little time for caregivers to relax and do things to control their stress. Richardson said other studies have shown that people who care for loved ones with Alzheimer's spend more time doing so than family caregivers for patients with any other disease.
But Richardson said he doesn't want to discourage family members from caring for their loved ones, since there are a lot of good things that come of it. Rather, he said, doctors should pay more attention to the health of their patients' family members.
"The caregiver's child, husband or spouse is a secondary patient," he said. "The physician must be concerned with their health. Taking care of the caregiver has a positive outcome for the recipient. It can slow the time to put the person in a nursing home, and it can affect their outcomes in the nursing home."
And caregivers should make sure to maintain a separate life, Richardson said. Don't feel guilty about going to a movie with friends, he said — in the long run, doing things like that will be make someone a better caregiver.
Dr. David C. Steffens, chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Connecticut, said it's not just the amount of care that Alzheimer's patients need but the nature of the disease itself that brings so much stress to caregivers.
"Let's face it — it's depressing watching someone you've known for 40 or 50 years lose their faculties," Steffens said. "It's demoralizing and discouraging to caregivers."
Steffens was part of a team of authors whose study found that people caring for spouses with dementia were six times more likely to develop dementia themselves. The authors suspect it's "the chronic and often severe stress associated with dementia care giving" that causes the greater incidence of dementia among caregivers.
Sonnone said caring for his mother drained him mentally and physically. He rarely had time to take care of himself. "I wasn't eating right. I was eating fast food," he said.
He also had a full-time job selling employee benefits. There wasn't time to buy groceries or do the laundry. "Then I'd get home and have a stack of bills I have to pay."
There was also the emotional stress of a being around a parent who not only didn't always recognize him, but would lash out at him at times.
"When she was in the assisted-living facility, she became a little abusive," he said. "It's a scary thing. This is a person I've known all my life, but it's not my mom anymore."