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   Caregivers Desperation Scale

Caring for aging parents or ailing relatives is one of the most stressful jobs there is. Mostly unpaid and unrecognized, family caregivers often operate in the dark with little help from professionals and little appreciation from care recipients and other family members.

It is unlikely that anyone is going to approach the caregiver and say, "You look tired. Why don't you put up your feet and get a little rest." Yet this is precisely what caregivers need to do on a regular basis. Caregiver stress can reach such high levels that the caregivers themselves may have trouble focusing on their own needs. They simply cannot tell when they have reached the breaking point. Most caregivers do not think that a vacation is remotely possible and resist the idea that they need to take time occasionally to recharge their own "batteries" in order to be effective in their caregiver role.

In reality all caregivers need to plan for regular R and R. When a caregiver reaches the highest levels of stress indicated below, the need for time off becomes critical. To avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed or risking illness, caregivers need to heed the warning signs of severe levels of stress:

You feel frustrated and anxious. You are exhausted, but unable to rest. More and more often find yourself looking for comfort in a chocolate bar or ice cream carton. 
You have chest pain, your ulcer is acting up or your back is out. You feel confused. Things you were pretty sure of yesterday no longer seem true or relevant. You are convinced that you are a failure as a caregiver and possibly as a human being. 
Your mind is a blank. All you know is that you are working harder and harder as things go from bad to worse. You find yourself experiencing a feeling that can only be called despair.

Stress can be measured on a scale of one to ten. Above are just three out of the 10 levels on the stress scale. I use items that come out of the real life experiences of clients, friends and associates to help people recognize when their stress levels are getting dangerously high. The American Medical Association has also published a self-help instrument for caregivers called the Caregiver Self-Assessment Questionnaire. It can be found at The AMA Database Caregiver Self Assessment resource page.

The caregiver who has reached the levels of stress listed above needs a break from care giving. It is now time for caregivers to reach out for hands on help if they have not already done so. If help is already available, it is time to call on that assistance and arrange for a long weekend or, even better, a week away.

Many caregivers will immediately protest that taking a week away from their loved one is impossible. However, respite is not optional at this point. It is not weakness to take some time for oneself. It is not being selfish or neglectful of your duty to the care recipient, either. It is simply acknowledging human limits--limits that many have reached before and others are reaching at this very moment.

It is much better to take a week at the beach than to find yourself in the hospital. Even a couple of days at home with the mail delivery stopped and the phone and TV turned off can do the trick. Doing whatever recharges your personal "battery" is what is needed now. Whether it is through inactivity or an absorbing task, the important thing is to get completely away from the pressure and stress of care giving.

Carol Leavenworth is a counselor and therapist in the Denver metro area specializing in the counseling of caregivers of aging parents and others. The Family Caregiver Desperation Scale™ consists of 10 levels that are indicators of stress. Carol developed the Family Caregiver Desperation Scale™ as a way to evaluate her clients level of caregiver stress.

It's a good idea to review your own level of stress regularly. We are better caregivers if we attend to our own health and sanity. To get access to the complete Family Caregiver Desperation Scale™ go to her blog Inside Aging Parent Care at There caregivers can see the entire scale and find support and a new understanding of themselves and their roles in the lives of those they care for.