A local office for a senior care group has launched a public awareness campaign to assist family caregivers in determining if they are at risk for distress and to seek help.

Home Instead Senior Care, a service that provides trained, non-medical assistants for independent living, has launched the website Caregiverstress.com to help family caregivers such as a spouse or child acknowledge their role as a caregiver and assess their risk for related emotional or physical problems.

"So many of our clients are aging or elderly; the goal of our service is to help the elderly stay independent and healthy and in their homes as long as possible," said Jonathan Fry, owner of the Fort Smith branch of the Home Instead franchise.

While about half of his clients come from Fort Smith, the other half comes from surrounding areas including Crawford County, Fry said.

Harold "Sonney" Henson, 85, of Van Buren was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago and requires "around the clock" care, said his daughter Tonya Matthews.

Additional physical problems means that Harold requires two people to assist him in and out of bed and to the bathroom, Matthews said. The dementia makes the process more difficult, because not only can her father not help with those tasks, but he isn’t even aware of his physical limitations, she said.

His 75-year-old wife, Helen, is his primary caregiver, with Matthews and her three siblings helping as much as they can, Matthews said.

Because of the toll the role of caregiver has taken on their mother - sleepless nights and "round the clock care" - Helen’s health has deteriorated, Matthews said. Helen contracted shingles last year and has to depend more and more on her children and outside caregivers to care for her husband, Matthews said.

"She is emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, but she sees no break for herself," Matthews said.

According to a market research study by The Boomer Project LLC, almost one-third of adults living in the U.S. are family caregivers. The stress of that role can put those caregivers at risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression and other emotional or physical problems, according to the study.

Many family caregivers try to hide their stress from the person depending on them, Fry said.

"You make that vow to your spouse that you’re going to take care of them ‘until death do you part,’ but a lot of that care-giving can be stressful," Fry said.

A national survey conducted by Home Instead reports that caregivers who hide their feelings experience fatigue, difficulty sleeping, depression, and weight gain or loss.

To help caregivers combat these problems, the website offers tools such as the Are You a Caregiver Quiz and Family Caregiver Distress Assessment. The site also provides resources such as caregivers support groups and tips on how to combat emotional and physical distress.

"As long as they’re taking care of themselves, they’ll continue to be an effective and compassionate caregiver," Fry said.

Matthews and her family have begun to see the importance of managing stress from being in a caregivers role, she said.

"I can see how a caregiver could deteriorate and be lost before the other person, because that person’s getting everything they need and the caregiver gives everything they have," Matthews said.

While Matthews and her mother have yet to use the online caregiver tools provided by Home Instead, Matthews said she and her siblings are encouraging their mother to take better care of herself.

"She needs to make herself a priority in order to care for him, or we’re going to have two sick parents," Matthews said.

Some suggestions to help caregivers combat emotional and physical distress is taking breaks, getting exercise, getting out of the house and seeking counsel, Fry said.

"When they’re encouraged to take care of themselves, when they know it is okay to take time for themselves, maybe more caregivers will take advantage of the resources out there and be better caregivers, ultimately," Fry said.

Caregivers can also call the Fort Smith office directly at (479) 434-6960.