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Caregiver Stress: The Impact of Chronic Disease on the Family

image A chronic condition is a problem that lasts for a long time or one that will never go away, such as Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. With the growth of our aging population, many more people will be touched by chronic conditions. Many will need assistance with routine aspects of everyday life.

The responsibilities of caregiving, added to the routine pressures of maintaining a family and professional life, can naturally lead to stress. Stress, in turn, creates a ripple effect on the health and well-being of not only the caregiver, but everyone from family members to friends and co-workers.

Extra Burdens

Living with a chronic condition—and caring for a person with a chronic condition—can lead to physical and emotional stress. The symptoms of this stress may look similar in both the person dealing with the condition and the caregiver. The symptoms include:

For the person with the chronic condition, the level and type of stress may vary depending on the specific illness and its prognosis. Common causes of physical and emotional stress include:

For caregivers who offer a wide range of help, stressors also depend on the intensity of their involvement and their relationship to the person in need. These stressors often include:

Because it is common for caregivers to feel stressed and depressed, some doctors refer to caregivers as hidden patients.

Adapted Lives

Because of the levels and types of stress involved, the impact of chronic illness can extend far beyond the sufferers and their caregivers. Nearly always, it affects the household of the person with the chronic condition. And as those household members are affected, the people who love, care for, and work with them can experience effects as well. A study of grown children with chronically ill parents revealed that even non-caregiver children showed an increased risk of depression.

In every chronic condition, strong support systems benefit everyone. A study of AIDS caregivers, for example, connected strong social support with better coping skills. Researchers are looking into the coping mechanisms that caregivers use and searching for better ways to support caregivers.

While the caregiver typically serves as a primary support system for the chronically ill person, friends, and family members can also play important roles. This can be children taking on more responsibilities or friends ensuring that caregivers take time off to relax. These steps help lower the stress level.

Steps to Care for Yourself

Because of the relentless demands associated with chronic illness, understanding positive methods of coping can greatly benefit everyone affected by the condition. Helpful coping strategies include:

The most important point to remember is that you do not need to go through this alone. There are resources available to help you and your loved one. Reach out and contract someone for the support that you deserve.


Family Caregiver Alliance

US Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging


Alzheimer Society of Canada

Canadian Caregiver Coalition


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Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 1/25/2016