By Lisa M. Petsche
Family members and friends provide practical assistance and enhance the quality of life for chronically ill seniors who might otherwise require residential long-term care. Typically, these caregivers are spouses or adult children, many older adults themselves.
The help they provide ranges from chauffeuring, shopping, running errands and paying bills to property maintenance, housekeeping, preparing meals, managing medication and assisting with personal care and mobility.
Other typical caregiver responsibilities include coordinating care and advocating for the ill person’s needs. If the care receiver is cognitively impaired, they may also provide supervision to ensure safety. In addition, caregivers provide companionship and emotional support.
Although it has its rewards, the caregiving role can be physically, psychologically, emotionally and financially demanding. It is particularly challenging when it continues over a long period of time, and when the care receiver has complex needs, a demanding personality or mental impairment.
While a certain degree of stress is inevitable, when left unchecked it can lead to the caregiver becoming physically, mentally and emotionally run down. Depression may result.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, “a conservative estimate reports that 20 percent of family caregivers suffer from depression, twice the rate of the general population” (Caregiver Depression: A Silent Health Crisis). The rate is even higher for those caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia.
If you are a caregiver, consider the following strategies for keeping stress manageable and reducing your risk of depression. Accept the reality of your relative’s illness so you can appropriately plan for the future.
- Learn as much as possible about the illness and its management, and educate family and friends to help them understand.
- Keep positive. Focus on what your relative can rather than can’t do and on your strengths and successes as a caregiver.
- Do things that bring inner peace, such as meditating, praying, reading, writing in a journal or listening to music.
- Create a relaxation room or corner in your home – a tranquil spot you can retreat to in order to rejuvenate.
- Develop a calming ritual to help you unwind at the end of the day.
- Make a conscious effort to look after your health: eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest, exercise and see your primary physician regularly.
- Stay connected to people whose company you enjoy.
- Simplify your life. Set priorities and don’t waste time or energy on unimportant things. If finances permit, hire a housecleaning service or a personal support worker or companion for your relative, to free up some of your time and energy.
- Be flexible about plans and expectations. Take things one day at a time.
- Give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions that surface, including resentment and frustration, which are normal. Remind yourself that you are doing your best and are only human.
- Don’t keep problems to yourself – seek support from a relative, friend, clergy member or counselor. Join a caregiver support group in your community or on the Internet.
- Accept offers of help. Ask other family members to share the load and be specific about what you need.
- Get information about community support services and take full advantage of them. Information can be obtained from your local office on aging.
Depression: An Overview
Contrary to popular belief, depression does not stem from personal weakness and the depressed individual cannot “buck up” or “snap out of it.” Clinical or major depression is a medical illness involving a chemical imbalance in the brain.
There is considerable variation among individuals in terms of the constellation and severity of emotional, mental and physical symptoms that are exhibited. The most common symptoms are as follows:
- a change in appetite, which may result in weight loss or gain;
- a change in sleep patterns – needing more sleep or experiencing insomnia;
- feeling tired or lacking energy;
- noticeable slowing of movements, speech or thinking;
- unexplained physical aches and pains, or exacerbation of chronic health issues;
- difficulty concentrating, remembering things and making decisions;
- feeling restless, anxious, irritable or angry;
- feeling sad, and perhaps also crying easily, without any particular reason;
- feeling guilty, incapable, unlovable or hopeless;
- lacking interest in activities that normally bring enjoyment;
- withdrawal from social contact;
- preoccupation with death or recurring thoughts of suicide.
In the case of suicidal thoughts, help should be sought immediately, through community crisis resources. If any of the other symptoms listed above persist for more than a few weeks and interfere with your ability to carry out daily activities, make an appointment to see your primary physician.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, treatment may involve counseling, antidepressant medication or a combination of the two. The sooner help is obtained for depression, the easier it is to treat it.
Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues. She has personal and professional experience with elder care.