What Happens When the Caregiver Gets Sick?

While the patient may get all the attention, caregivers can easily go unnoticed. Often the primary caregiver is a family member who has been suddenly thrust into this demanding role and they’re unprepared, untrained and ill equipped emotionally or even physically to handle it. This makes the caregiver especially vulnerable to stress and to getting sick. Your loved one is depending on you. But what happens when you get sick and are unable to be there?


First, it’s important to understand that you, the caregiver, may be extra susceptible to health problems so be sure to not overlook your own well being while attending to your loved one’s. Dr. Keith L. Black serves as Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and Director of the Neurological Institute at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He believes that caregivers don’t recognize their own health needs because they are so focused on the patient. And symptoms that may pose as simple fatigue, irritability or sadness could be signs of a real health problem. So it’s important not to dismiss them. Dr. Black notes that caregiver stress can compromise one’s immune system, which can then lead to all kinds of health problems, from minor to very serious. He’s found studies that conclude caregivers have an increased likelihood to be clinically depressed and may be at a heightened risk to over-stimulate the production of inflammatory chemicals in their body, which can lead to the cold, flu or other more serious ailments like arthritis, diabetes or even heart disease.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests looking for the following signs of stress

  • Feeling angry or sad,
  • Feeling like it’s more than you can handle,
  • Sleeping too much or too little,
  • Having trouble eating or eating too much,
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy

If you get sick or are unable to be there for your loved one, you should have a backup plan. Rob Harris, a Senior Professional in Human Resources, a caregiver and author on caregiving, outlines steps you can take

  • Identify people who are ready, willing and able to step in should you be away for any length of time. Decide if anyone is able to make critical decisions (legal, financial, regarding health insurance, consult with doctors) in place of you. Make a list of these potential substitute caregivers. Keep copies for yourself and give each person copies as well as copies of the following…
  • An emergency contact list of relatives, friends, neighbors and times they might be available should their assistance be needed,
  • A list of pre-screened, competent home health care agencies that you are comfortable calling or your stand-in can call for help. These people are trained and can provide medical assistance,
  • A list of all your loved one’s medications, how and when to administer them. Be sure the substitute is cleared to receive prescriptions from the pharmacy,
  • A list of any diet restrictions and food/drug interactions,
  • A list of the doctors, their locations and contact numbers plus a schedule of doctor’s visits. Make sure your substitute is cleared to speak with medical professionals,
  • An overview of the patient’s medical history, timeline of events or diary of activities so that the substitute can be up to speed with their regimen, plus communicate with doctors

Feeling under the weather may be unavoidable, but you can help avert your own debilitating health problems in the first place by taking steps to take care of yourself. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests the following

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces stress and depression and helps keep you fit,
  • Eat a good, balanced diet with smart food choices that protect you from heart disease, bone loss and high blood pressure,
  • Get regular sleep,
  • Don’t overwork your back,
  • Ease your mood by taking slow, deep breaths, listen to soothing music, take a relaxing bath,
  • Make time for yourself. Go away and do something you enjoy (see a movie, gather with friends, etc.)

Healthy food

Dr. Black agrees; “If you are a caregiver, hats off to you. Please take care of yourself and listen to your body and brain. While you may believe it’s best to pour all your energy and time toward caring for your loved one, if it’s at the expense of your own health, it will affect the quality of your life and your care. If things get overwhelming, ask for help.” Find other caregivers who you can talk to. They are people who truly understand what you’re going through. Be smart and be sure you’re there for yourself, too.

Written by Arthur Roeser
Arthur retells his story caring for his mother and father, covering many common issues caregivers face through first person narration, such as: hoarding, sibling conflict, parents unwilling to be helped, finances, communication with medical professionals, guilt, anxiety, stress and shame.

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  1. Hiring caregivers takes money. Also if you don’t have people who will help – even in your family – then what? I now have a life threatening illness because I am so exhausted from care giving. We are supposed to be living in one of the best countries in the world, yet there is little support for those who are trying to keep someone out of the nursing home. I estimate that I have saved my state over 2 million dollars in Medicaid nursing home care. I do get some monetary help from a state program, but the country as a whole needs to give us more support.

  2. for the past year, the only sick time I’ve taken was to fill in for someone who couldn’t stay with mom or when mom wasn’t feeling well.. .I’ve gone to work with bronchitis, pulled back muscle and just feeling like crap just because I can’t take a sick day for myself.

  3. As I said before, when we as caregivers are sick, we are S.O.L All the preparations listed on the article arent that useful.
    I don’t want to be negative, it’s just based on being a unpaid caregiver for 21yrs.
    I suffered depression for almost 3yrs plus other ailments from caregiver stress.

  4. This was so helpful. I have been told this recently and I just had trouble doing it. I will have to work harder to take care of myself so that I can be there for them.

    • Would have been helpful 20 years ago. I promised I wouldnt fall into the same trap of caregiver after my mom passed, with my dad. But here I am, doing it anyway. Everything about my life revolves around my subservience to my family. My sister called me the “winner.”
      So I lay here, day 4 of an injured spine from falling, my father expecting me to take care of him under the guise of him keeping me company. It’s a trap.
      I also need to go to work injured (which will remain injured for 4 weeks according to the doctors with good care).
      I’m already being written up for being late for going to the ER 4 days ago.

      So happy New Year and long live the corporate dream.

  5. It also helps to have a functioning family support network online to share the care and to alert people when there’s a family emergency such as caregiver illness. I’m the Mom of a young man with severe physical disabilities and I help look after my mother who is 93 as well. It’s a catastrophe if I am sick. But it’s a lot easier with the app we use called Tyze Personal Networks – I put out the alert and a list of what I need. Friends and family who are in the network can ‘claim a task’. The first time I got sick, it was a little chaotic even with Tyze, but now everyone has fallen into their helping roles – someone calls the care agency for me, someone else delivers food. It all works out and it’s a great relief to me. Tyze is free for anyone who needs it – http://www.tyze.com.


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