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Stroke Caregivers Face Their Own Health Challenges

When a loved one is recovering from a stroke, in-home care provides the support family caregivers need to take care of themselves also.

In-home caregiver helping fold laundry

Almost 800,000 Americans each year suffer a stroke. Today, stroke is the number three cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. But many stroke victims survive. For them, the degree of recovery depends on several factors. This includes prompt treatment during the "golden hour"—the time period immediately after the stroke during which the most can be done to halt further damage to the brain. Rehabilitation therapy then helps many return to their highest possible level of physical and cognitive function.

Today hospital stays are shorter than ever. Some stroke patients are discharged to a rehabilitation center or other care facility. Many others return home, continuing treatment at an outpatient rehabilitation center. Months or years of treatment may follow. Lifestyle changes also enhance recovery, and help prevent another stroke.

This care regimen can take a toll on family members who are supporting a patient’s recovery at home. Many of these impromptu family caregivers report feeling unprepared and overwhelmed by the tasks they must now perform and responsibilities they face. The necessary hands-on care may be unfamiliar and physically taxing. According to a study from Northwestern University, dealing with changes in their relationship with the stroke survivor can also cause much caregiver stress. Professor Rosemarie King says, “Caregivers face much anxiety about managing their own finances and taking care of their own emotions during such a difficult time.”

Research now shows that family caregivers can be at greater risk for depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease—even, most notably, of suffering a stroke themselves. This year, a study appearing in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association showed that caring for a disabled spouse can raise the stroke risk of family caregivers by 23%. The researchers examined levels of mental and emotional strain and depressive symptoms in spouse caregivers. Researcher William E. Haley, PhD, of the University of South Florida, said, "Highly stressful caregiving can be chronic and includes many difficult and uncontrollable stressors such as witnessing the suffering of a loved one, financial strain, social isolation and psychologically demanding personal care."

These studies demonstrate how important it is for caregivers to take care of their own health. "Do something for yourself, every day," advises the National Institute on Aging. But how? Caregiving tasks, combined with work and other responsibilities, tax the time of almost all family caregivers.

If you are a caregiver, be sure to take advantage of support resources in your community. Ask the hospital discharge planner or social worker for suggestions. Join a local stroke survivor family support group. Contact the local chapter of the American Stroke Association. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and other family members to help.

In-home care can be a lifesaver—literally! Many of the risk factors for another stroke are controllable, such as exercise, diet, managing blood pressure, avoiding stress and quitting smoking. Many family caregivers find that a trained, in-home caregiver is an indispensable help for their loved one as he or she recovers. Caregivers are trained to support the patient's recovery by:

  • Providing physical assistance such as bathing, dressing, shaving, transferring from bed to chair, incontinence care and toileting;

  • Preparing meals, including pureed and other special diets, and assisting with eating;

  • Keeping the house clean and in order, and checking for hazards that could cause a fall;

  • Providing respectful, understanding companionship and mental stimulation, which help the patient avoid experiencing loneliness and isolation;

  • Transporting the patient to healthcare and rehabilitation appointments; and,

  • Encouraging compliance with the healthcare provider’s instructions, including medication management and a home exercise routine prescribed by the physical, occupational and/or speech therapist.

Family members also benefit when a trained in-home caregiver joins the stroke recovery home team:

  • With the in-home caregiver taking over many care tasks, family have more time for work duties, other family tasks, and respite time for their own needs. They are more likely to be mindful of their own nutrition and exercise.

  • Whether across the country or just in another room, family members feel much less anxiety knowing a competent caregiver is on hand to watch out for their loved one—not only performing physical care tasks, but also supporting their loved one’s emotional well-being.

  • Hiring in-home care helps "normalize" family relationships. Most families and patients appreciate the in-home caregiver taking over tasks such as bathing, toileting and incontinence care, which helps preserve the patient’s sense of dignity and privacy.

  • Patient and family can spend more time doing activities they enjoy. Did you know that quality time often includes exercise? A recent American Stroke Association study shows that stroke patients and family alike benefit from exercising together. "It’s a win-win situation for everyone," said Emma Stokes, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator. (Caring Right at Home readers seem to agree: a poll in the March 2011 issue showed that 67% believe the best way to encourage loved ones to be active is to exercise with them.)

  • Helping with the cost of in-home care is a way that other family members can provide concrete support for the family member who serves as the primary caregiver. Says one son, “I can’t travel to Dad’s city as often as I’d like, and my sister who lives near him provides the lion’s share of care. I call several times a week, express my appreciation for all Sis does—but paying for in-home care and assistance was when I really felt I was doing my part to support her in all she does for Dad."

Learn More

See "When a Loved One Has a Stroke: 15 Tips for Family Caregivers" in the May 2010 issue of Caring Right at Home for suggestions from the American Stroke Association.

The American Stroke Association website offers a wealth of resources and support to help family caregivers care for themselves and their loved one .

The National Stroke Association offers a collection of resources and factsheets for stroke patients, caregivers and families, and information about National Stroke Awareness Month, which is observed in May of each year.

To learn more about how home care can help you and your loved ones after stroke, visit the Right at Home website.

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care services. 


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