Some believe it all started with a tennis match in the 1970s but the battle between the sexes has always existed -- it just gets updated for today's modern dilemmas: who gets paid more at work for the same job, who is a better driver, who controls the remote at home, who gets kicked off the reality TV program island and on it goes. One area where men and women are almost equally represented -- caring for an aging parent -- becomes a battleground in how each sex handles stress.
Several studies identify stress as the biggest challenge the nation's 65 million caregivers face. In the Alzheimer's Association 2013 Facts & Figures Report, 60 percent of dementia caregivers rate their stress levels as very high and one-third also report depression. A UCLA study found the depression statistic for dementia caregivers may be closer to 50 percent. While caring for a loved one with dementia creates more physical and psychological stress, the rise in men as caregivers -- now as high as 45 percent according to the latest Pew Research -- prompted a deeper look into how men differ from women in the stress challenges of caring for an older parent.
Mars vs. Venus Caregiver Stress
According to a Bowling Green State University research study, women are more natural nurturers, but they are also bigger worriers about their caregiving performance. The anxiety of analyzing how they are handling caregiving and whether their loved one is happy with the decisions they have to make creates constant stress for caregiving daughters.
On the opposite team, the research found men react to stress using a typical sports analogy. Sons caring for an older parent take a block and tackle approach -- they have a list of tasks they must perform and they gain satisfaction on accomplishing these goals without worrying about their performance. Simply completing the tasks eliminated the men's anxiety leading the researchers to conclude the men who are caregivers actually experience less psychological stress.
In addition, the researchers found the men who were caregivers were given more praise by others. The conclusion is society still sees women as the natural caregivers and thus, does not single them out for accolades in providing care. The men who become caregivers are seen as rare and thus acknowledged more positively for stepping into a caring role.
Invisible Intruder -- The Stress Inside
Whether male or female, we know ongoing stress can lead to burn-out as well as multiple health problems -- headaches, back pain, insomnia and even hypertension leading to serious health risks such as heart attack or stroke. A recent study conducted by Umea University in Sweden found psychological stress in middle age can also be a cause for later-life dementia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 90 percent of doctor visits are stress-related and a National Alliance for Caregiving study of Alzheimer's caregivers and health risks found dementia caregivers visited their physician three times as often as the general public and increased their health care costs by $4,766 per year.
The difficulty is stress is often invisible. It is not like a rash or broken limb which is an obvious sign of a physical health problem. Try this one test for stress: Do you have your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth? If so, this is a sign of chronic stress you may not realize you have. Two stress tests developed specifically for caregivers are provided online by the American Medical Association and the Alzheimer's Association.
Mars & Venus -- 7 Caregiver Stress Relief Tips
In my book, A Cast of Caregivers, I outline seven ways caregivers can achieve stress relief and avoid caregiver burn-out (the "magnificent seven" S-words):
1. Sleep - Getting 7-9 hours of restorative sleep is one of the best things caregivers can do for physical and mental health. An Australian study found those who only achieved 5-6 hours of sleep per night had the equivalent of .05 blood alcohol level making them drowsy and distracted. A study from Norway shows sleep loss, called sleep debt, can add up to 12 pounds of weight gain in one year by negatively impacting the body's natural metabolism.
2. Sunshine -- Sunshine is a natural mood enhancer which is why vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin. In addition, it can also help reduce the risk of falls by building bone strength. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 10 minutes of sunshine or 800 IUs of a Vit D supplement daily will reduce falls risk by 17 percent. This can help seniors but also caregivers who often fall when transferring a loved one who is non-ambulatory.
3. Super Foods -- What we eat impacts how we feel and can help alleviate stress and depression. Super foods are good for the body providing strength and stamina. Two super foods can also help with stress and depression: salmon which has been shown to lower depression levels, and low-fat yogurt which is high in vitamin D.
4. Soothe -- Whether it is a massage or a warm bath, physically soothing activities can help boost caregiver immune systems and aid in relaxation to alleviate stress. A Japanese study found a 10-minute warm bath releases toxins in the body and boosts the vascular and lymphatic systems to avoid colds. Also, 10 minutes a day of a relaxation exercise or meditation to soothe and calm the mind will achieve the same results according to Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response.
5. Scents -- Aromatherapy has been around since the ancient Egyptians and is being used by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to help in caregiver relaxation, anxiety and stress. Lavender helps treat insomnia and headaches and rosemary can help with muscle tension and back pain brought on by chronic stress.
6. Social contact and support -- It sounds like common sense but having social contact is essential to reducing caregiver stress. Whether it is a support group for Alzheimer's caregivers, a best friend to talk to or provide a shoulder to cry on, or a professional therapist, finding support is critical. While men have often turned to sports outings such as a round of golf with good buddies to alleviate stress, more men and women caregivers are seeking support groups. Check out the Alzheimer's Association Care Team Calendar, Lotsa Helping Hands to help get a respite break or Homewatch Caregivers which founded an online community just for male caregivers.
7. Setting limits -- One of the hardest things for caregivers to establish are boundaries and saying "no" to things which impact their own health and wellness needs. Don't neglect doctor appointments, social engagements and other activities which can bring health, joy and happiness. Also, if there is a caregiving task which is difficult to perform -- whether it is incontinence issues or dealing with violent outbursts -- find a professional health care worker who can help so the resentment and frustration does not build up inside causing more stress.