Caregivers dedicate their days to fulfilling their loved ones' needs. Often the focus is so completely on the people who need care that the caregivers lose sight of what they need to do to care for themselves. But caregiving is stressful and demanding, and caregivers develop depression at a greater rate than their peers. So, if there's ever a time when a person should pay attention to his or her own emotional, psychological and physical health, it is, ironically enough, when trying to provide care for someone else.
The amount of stress will vary from situation to situation, affected by personal vulnerability to stress, other relationships and coping ability. However, eating well, drinking sufficient amounts of fluid, getting enough sleep and taking care of the daily necessities rank high on the list of what caregivers should do for themselves, just as they would at any other time in their lives. But caregivers and the people around them can take additional steps to help address the stress that is particular to a caregiver's role.
Find a Support Group
Although people who are caregivers for cancer patients may face many of the same stresses that people who care for people with dementia face, the differences can be important. A support group made up of people who are caring for the same type of patient can be very helpful. A person caring for an Alzheimer's patient might worry about how to handle their loved one's paranoia or tendency to wander and get lost, whereas someone caring for a cancer patient could be coping with very different concerns. Support groups can be found online, through a church or through the specialists who provide medical care for your loved one.
Get Some Training
Caregiving requires knowledge and skills that most people have not acquired. Many groups provide caregiver training or manuals to help teach useful information and techniques. Start by searching online for publications such as the Caregiver Guide, put out by the National Institute on Aging and focused on people caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease. (see "For More Information" below.)
Use Your Support Network
Studies show that caregivers are more likely to reach out for social support than most people going through difficult times in their lives. This is true whether a caregiver is usually highly social or generally prefers to be independent. People often offer to help, and it's important to take them up on those offers! It might be helpful to make a list of things you need help with — whether you just need company during an afternoon at home, help with chores such as grocery shopping or taking the dog to the vet, or a weekend off from caregiving. Don't feel guilty about leaning on others; you might one day have a chance to help them in a time of need.
Be Realistic About Your Abilities
One of the primary sources of stress for caregivers develops when people take on tasks that are difficult or impossible for them to do. For example, family members might try to continue providing care for a person with dementia after that person becomes combative or can no longer control urination. Or, family members might find it impossible to feed their loved one at home when a feeding tube becomes necessary.
Sometimes the inability to provide care might not be due to physical limitations but to time constraints. An adult with a full-time job and children to care for might find the stress of also taking care of a parent too much to handle on their own.
It is helpful to think about what options you have before you reach the point where you can no longer provide care.
Whether you decide that it is time for residential care, adult daycare or in-home care, when you reach the point that you cannot do something that is necessary for the care of your loved one, it is OK to ask for some level of help.
Cope With Your Anger
Anger is a natural and normal response to becoming a caregiver. Anger is also correlated with depression and the belief that caregiving is a heavy or unfair burden. If you find yourself feeling angry a lot, seek counseling to help manage that anger. Some people feel guilty or selfish for being angry about their new role. It is important to know that anger is an acceptable response to what you and your loved one are going through.
Try Not to Criticize
Caregivers who are also highly critical of the person they are caring for are more likely to be stressed or depressed. People who are coping with the effects of a brain disease, traumatic brain injury, dementia or brain cancer might change their personality or habits, and caregivers might find these changes frustrating, annoying, saddening and alarming. Be informed about what changes are possible as a result of your loved one's brain disease or treatment and try to remain patient with that person. They probably cannot "just snap out of it," as much as you both might wish they could.
Seek Positive Meaning
Caregivers who are able to find a positive aspect to their new role are less likely to become depressed. Although it might be hard to think of any positives, such perspectives could include a belief that it is fulfilling to care for a loved one who has cared for you in the past or that you have support for your caregiving role through your faith or religious life.
Know the Signs of Depression
Although most people feel blue or down once in a while, those who continue to feel that way for an extended period and whose mood interferes with their daily life and obligations could be suffering from depression. Contact a doctor for a diagnosis and referrals for therapy or medication.
Signs of depression include:
- Little or no interest in things that once brought pleasure
- Feeling down or hopeless
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Feeling tired or without energy
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Feeling bad about yourself (guilt, self blame, feeling like a failure)
- Not being able to concentrate
- Thoughts of hurting or killing yourself
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The National Mental Health Association offers an online screening for people who think they might be suffering from depression: www.depression-screening.org. To obtain a copy of the Caregiver Guide, published by the National Institute on Aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/caregiverguide.