Coping With Stress When Caring for a Terminally Ill Relative

Health Writer

About six million adults, or one out of every four households, in the United States are caring for a relative with a chronic or terminal illness. Most of these are women and many are caring for their spouses or their parents. Although most of the time our last days will be in a hospital, the days, weeks or months leading up to this are frequently spent at home, or at the home of relatives.

Caregivers face a great deal of stress on a daily basis.

Part of the stress comes from the uncertainty of the situation. The caregiver may understand that, if this is a terminal illness, that death is near, but it is usually impossible to know when. The caregiver may worry every day about the outcome, and what medical emergency he or she may need to cope with today.

Caregivers may also face financial problems and stress. Many have given up their full time jobs in order to care for their family member. There may be mounting medical bills to pay for. On top of providing day to day medical and living care, the caregiver may need to cope with daily phone calls from bill collectors or budgeting limited amounts of money to try to cover expenses.

Caregivers may need to help other family members cope with the situation or play referee with feuding relatives. Family disagreements on medical care or other decisions can create friction, adding to the stress caregivers may feel.

Caregivers often put off taking care of themselves. They may feel (or be) on call 24 hours a day, or they may never have a break from their duties. Caregivers often have interrupted sleep, little time to relax and less time to pursue their own interests or spend time with their own friends.

On top of all of this, caregivers must deal with their own emotions of facing death on a daily basis as well as mourning the upcoming loss of their loved one. Some studies show the rate of depression in caregivers of terminally ill patients to be as high as 50 percent.

Caregivers may need to make decisions that make him or her uncomfortable

or were decisions once made by the patient. Not only must the decisions be made, but the caregiver must deal with the inability of the patient, maybe the result of Alzheimer's disease. (Caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's have more symptoms of stress and depression than those caring for patients with other physical illnesses.)

What can a caregiver do to help relieve stress?

Respite Care

Obviously, the best situation would involve several family members sharing the responsibility. At the very least, having other relatives take turns, relieving the primary caregiver for a few hours each day and a few days each week can help immensely. In the absence of other relatives, caregivers can seek the help of friends or check community resources and insurance benefits for respite care. Respite care is when a friend, relative or health care professional will provide care for a limited time (sometimes up to a weekend) to give the primary caregiver a much needed break. Many insurance companies will provide benefits for respite care.

Support Groups

Depending on your family member's illness, there may be support groups in your area to help cope with the daily stress. Check with your local health department or hospital to see if any support groups for caregivers exist. Having someone that understands your situation to talk with and share experiences can help you better manage on a day to day basis.


Learn as much as you can about your relative's illness. Understanding what symptoms mean and how to care for each symptom can help to relieve some of the stress. This can also help you to understand what to expect in the coming days and what symptoms indicate a medical emergency or which symptoms may not require immediate care.

Develop Stress Relieving Strategies

Although you may feel as if you don't have time for daily exercise or taking the time to go for a walk, you may need these activities to help you manage your stress. Finding just fifteen minutes each day to relax can help you feel better.

Some health agencies offer a caregiver stress assessment to help you pinpoint what specific tasks or responsibilities may be causing the most stress. By understanding your triggers for stress, you can work on specific strategies for those situations.

Seek Professional Help

There is nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling to help. This is most definitely a stressful and difficult time in your life. Being able to talk with someone can help you cope with your emotions about your relative's illness, and possibly impending death as well as help you cope with the every day stress.


Studies point out risk of depression high among caregivers, 2004, March 3, Rajesh Tampi, M.D.,M.S., Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital

Coping with Terminal Illness in the Family, Date Unknown, Author Unknown, Overcoming Personal Crisis