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Caregivers & Substance Abuse | Risk Factors, Signs, Treatment, & Resources

Published on June 30, 2021
Caregivers & Substance Abuse | Risk Factors, Signs, Treatment, & Resources

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 43.5 million Americans serve as caregivers to people with disabilities or illnesses. While most people find this job rewarding, it requires physical, mental, and emotional strength. 

These demands leave many caregivers feeling overwhelmed. To cope, some of them turn to alcohol or other drugs.

Why Do Caregivers Abuse Substances?

Whether you care for a child or an adult, caregiving can cause a variety of stressors that increase your risk of substance abuse. These stressors can include:

Social Isolation

As a caregiver, you may spend most or even all of your time focused on someone else’s needs. You’ll then have little time to spend with friends and family. As a result, your relationships may suffer. 

When you can’t maintain your relationships, you face a high risk of loneliness. Loneliness is a common trigger for substance abuse. That’s because alcohol and other drugs may temporarily numb lonely feelings. Over time, though, they make your mental health worse. 

Depression & Other Emotional Issues

Although caregiving can provide a wonderful sense of purpose, it can also cause depression. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, between 40 to 70% of caregivers have depressive symptoms, such as: 

  • sadness
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in activities 

In many cases, depression stems from the loneliness described above. Other times, it’s related to the sadness you may feel as you watch the person you care for suffer. 

Along with depression, some caregivers report other distressing emotions, including: 

  • anger
  • frustration
  • guilt
  • helplessness

All of these feelings can lead someone to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. 

Stress & Anxiety

Most caregivers have numerous duties, from cooking meals to handling doctor’s appointments and administering medication. This level of responsibility can cause extreme stress. 

When left unmanaged, stress can lead to anxiety, a condition characterized by persistent, excessive worrying. 

Other symptoms of anxiety may include irritability, sleep problems, and trouble concentrating. These symptoms can make it difficult for you to fulfill your caregiving duties, which can then increase your anxiety. 

Like isolation and depression, anxiety makes you more likely to abuse drugs. 

Access To Addictive Medications

Many caregivers are responsible for administering medications. Some caregivers sneak certain medications for their own use. 

For example, a person with severe pain may need prescription opioids, such as OxyContin or Vicodin. The person’s caregiver may use these pills to feel relaxed and euphoric, or “high.” Unfortunately, opioids pose a high risk of addiction when used without a prescription. 

Other prescription medications that a caregiver might steal include:

As with opioids, these drugs pose a high risk of addiction when taken without a prescription. 

Dangers Of Caregiver Substance Abuse

When you abuse substances as a caregiver, you face some serious threats, including:

An Inability To Care For Yourself

When you regularly abuse a drug, it becomes your main priority. You may find it difficult to think of anything else, including basic activities like showering, eating, and getting enough sleep. 

When you don’t care for yourself, you increase your risk of physical and mental health problems. To temporarily numb these problems, you may start abusing drugs more frequently. 

In other words, you’ll experience a vicious cycle where substance abuse harms your health and poor health makes you abuse substances. 

An Inability To Care For Others

Drugs impair important mental functions like judgment, awareness, and memory. Thus, they can prevent you from caring for others. For example, a caregiver who’s intoxicated or hungover might:

  • forget about caregiving duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and administering medication
  • accidentally give the wrong dosage of medication
  • forget about doctor’s appointments
  • not hear a person’s cry for help during an emergency 
  • struggle to call 911 or seek medical help during an emergency

When you can’t properly care for someone, you may put their life in danger. 

Abuse Toward Others

As a caregiver, you must display a significant amount of patience and understanding. 

When you’re drunk or high, however, you may become impatient, irritable, and even aggressive. These issues can increase your risk of verbally or physically abusing the person you’re supposed to care for. 

Signs Of Caregiver Substance Abuse 

A caregiver who’s struggling with substance abuse may:

  • withdraw from family and friends
  • lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • take home other people’s medications
  • hide medications
  • become irritated easily 
  • experience sudden weight changes
  • experience financial problems
  • feel unable to complete daily tasks without using drugs or alcohol

If you or someone you know displays these symptoms, seek professional help right away. When left untreated, substance abuse often leads to substance use disorder (also called drug addiction). This disease makes you feel unable to control your substance use despite negative consequences. 

Types Of Caregivers

Substance abuse can affect all types of caregivers. The most common types include:

Cancer Caregivers

A cancer caregiver assists a person throughout cancer treatment. Along with basic caregiving tasks like cooking and cleaning, a cancer caregiver might:

  • help the patient make decisions regarding treatment
  • help the patient set aside time for fun, relaxing activities 
  • help the patient decide whether they should continue a certain treatment
  • keep track of the patient’s doctor’s appointments
  • inform the patient’s loved ones of any treatment-related changes 

Chronic Illness Caregivers

A chronic illness is an illness that lasts at least one year and requires ongoing medical care. Examples include diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. Many people with chronic illness require caregivers to assist with daily tasks they can’t perform on their own due to illness. 

In addition, since some chronic illnesses prevent people from getting out of the house and spending time with others, a caregiver can provide much-needed companionship. 

Physical Disability Caregivers

Like chronic illness, physical disability can hinder your ability to complete daily tasks and spend time with other people. Thus, like chronic illness caregivers, a physical disability caregiver helps with daily tasks and provides companionship. 

They may also help people complete physical therapy exercises to increase strength and mobility.

Senior Caregivers

Many senior citizens need caregivers to help make life easier as they age. The caregiver’s responsibilities depend on the senior’s needs. 

For example, some people only need help with cooking and light housekeeping. Other people require assistance with most or all daily tasks, such as eating, bathing, and walking. 

Mental Health Caregivers

A mental health caregiver assists people with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and major depression. Their responsibilities may include:

  • monitoring the person’s symptoms
  • transporting the person to therapy and psychiatry appointments
  • encouraging the person to engage in self-care activities, such as meditation and journaling
  • administering medications
  • helping the person with employment and finances 

Treatment For Caregiver Substance Abuse

Like all forms of substance abuse, caregiver substance abuse is treatable. For most caregivers, treatment involves:

Finding Another Caregiver

When you struggle with substance abuse, you can’t properly care for yourself or others. 

Thus, you should ask someone else to take on your caregiving duties (at least until you recover from substance abuse). Sometimes, you can ask a family member or friend. Other times, you’ll need to find a professional caregiver. 

Whether you choose a professional or someone you know, make sure they have the skills necessary to provide proper care. 

Seeking Professional Substance Abuse Treatment

At a substance abuse treatment program, you’ll have access to a variety of recovery-focused services. Depending on the program and your needs, these services may include:

  • medical detox, in which you’ll slowly and safely stop using drugs while being supervised by medical professionals
  • therapy, in which you’ll learn healthy coping skills to manage stress and drug cravings
  • support groups, in which you’ll connect with other people recovering from substance abuse
  • medication-assisted treatment (MAT), in which you’ll be prescribed medications that help you recover from addictions to alcohol, opioids, or tobacco 

Most treatment centers offer both inpatient care (meaning you live at the treatment center) and outpatient care (meaning you live at home while regularly attending a treatment center). 

If you have mild substance abuse issues, you could choose outpatient care and still have time to perform some of your caregiving duties (though you should share them with someone else until you fully recover). 

If you have more severe substance abuse issues, you should probably choose inpatient care. Ask your doctor to help you determine which option is right for you. 

Focusing On Self-Care

Whether you choose inpatient or outpatient treatment, you can’t fully recover unless you prioritize self-care. Self-care is also essential if you plan to continue caregiving. That’s because you can’t properly care for someone else if you don’t care for yourself.

Popular self-care activities include:

  • exercise
  • yoga
  • meditation
  • eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • reading
  • taking a bath
  • going for a walk
  • journaling 

Organizations That Help Caregivers

During and after treatment, you can receive support from organizations designed to help caregivers. These organizations include:

AARP Caregiver Resource Center 

The AARP Caregiver Resource Center provides free guides on a variety of caregiver-related topics, including caregiver stress. 

It also offers an online community where you can share your experiences with other caregivers along with a toll-free support line (1-877-333-5885) where a caregiving expert can connect you with valuable resources. 

Caregiver Action Network (CAN)

The Caregiver Action Network is a non-profit organization that provides a variety of free resources for caregivers, including:

  • an online Care Community where you can anonymously connect with other caregivers
  • a monthly e-newsletter that offers caregiving news and tips
  • a Family Caregiver Toolbox that offers information on numerous caregiving topics

Family Caregiver Alliance

The Family Caregiver Alliance provides a free online service called CareNav, which offers information, support, and resources for family caregivers of adults with chronic physical or cognitive conditions. 

The organization also provides a Services by State tool, which connects you with state-specific resources for caregivers and the people they care for. 

National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC)

The National Alliance for Caregiving aims to support caregivers by advancing research, advocacy, and innovation. It offers free guidebooks about caregiving along with an e-newsletter focused on caregiver-related research and resources. 

Well Spouse Association 


The Well Spouse Association aims to assist people who serve as caregivers to their spouses (also known as spousal caregivers). It can connect you with other spousal caregivers through online forums, telephone support groups, and in-person support groups.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

AARP - Caregiving in the U.S.
Family Caregiver Alliance- Caregiver Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Warning Signs of Substance and Alcohol Use Disorder

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