Multiple life roles may be source of caregiver stress

Contact Kristin Litzelman,, 608-262-3314


It’s no mystery that many informal caregivers—individuals who provide unpaid support to family members or friends with illness or disabilities—often feel stressed.

“Informal caregivers’ responsibilities can cover a wide range,” says Kristin Litzelman, a University of Wisconsin-Extension specialist in family and financial well-being during mid to later life.

Litzelman says caregivers may provide emotional support and help with cleaning or physically moving around the house. Medical and health-care tasks, such as coordinating medical appointments, dealing with insurance, and sometimes even medical procedures that would once have taken place in a hospital, may also be part of caregiving. Sometimes, care extends to providing financial support.

Other life obligations don’t stop when caregiving begins, Litzelman says. Many caregivers have important roles and responsibilities such as jobs, parenting or running a household.

All of that can add up to an overwhelming situation, she says. If caregivers don’t take care of themselves, they can burn out or develop their own health problems.


Caregiving may not be the issue

At first glance, it might seem like caregiving is the problem. “Research suggests, however, that it isn’t caregiving itself that contributes to poor quality of life and other health problems in caregivers; rather, it is the stress that can result from the multiple roles caregivers play,” says Litzelman.elderlylady

This distinction is important, says Litzelman, because informal caregiving can actually have benefits for the caregiver. Feeling good about themselves and having a sense of purpose are two of the benefits caregivers report.

“That sense of purpose and responsibility can contribute to better health and quality of life,” says Litzelman. “Caregiving itself is not a bad thing, and can actually contribute to positive emotional health for caregivers.”


Attitude is important

Even if caregivers have a lot on their plate, it doesn’t automatically mean they will feel stressed or overwhelmed. “An important piece of the puzzle is how caregivers perceive or appraise the situation. When they have the resources to deal with the challenges presented by caregiving, it may not feel stressful,” says Litzelman.

For caregivers who report low levels of stress, some research shows that they may actually have better outcomes than people who aren’t informal caregivers, ranging from better quality of life to lower mortality risk, explains Litzelman. It is the caregivers with high levels of stress who are at risk for burnout, depression, extreme fatigue and other health problems.

“Another important consideration is that caregiving stress alone is not to blame for burnout and poor quality of life in caregivers,” says Litzelman. “Stress from other areas of life, like paid employment, interpersonal relationships, or financial difficulties, can all accumulate and contribute to quality of life and mental health problems.”elderlyman

Litzelman says that how people feel about their stress—if they see it as harmful, or as beneficial—can affect how it impacts them.


Resources available

According to Litzelman, the good news is that there are many resources—respite care, educational classes, support groups, even financial assistance—for family caregivers.

In Wisconsin, most family caregivers can get more information about resources they are eligible for by contacting their local aging office. Online resources like the Family Care Navigator, or in-person connections with hospital social workers, faith leaders, or others, can also point caregivers in the right direction.

“Caregivers also benefit from taking time to take care of themselves,” says Litzelman. “Research tells us that activities like exercise, mindfulness and cultivating a sense of gratitude are all associated with better well-being in family caregivers.”

Feeling more in control of any area of life may also help; for example, financial coaching to get a handle on balancing retirement saving and medical debt, or organizing help to keep up with chores and housework.

“Giving caregivers permission and encouragement to take care of themselves can also help. Only by caring for ourselves can any of us successfully care for others,” says Litzelman.