Caregiver depression and caring for someone
Spiraling from caregiver into caregiver depression
Caring for someone else can be the most rewarding thing you do in your life. But no matter how much you love them, it can also be the hardest thing. Some of you are caregivers professionally. You go to work each day to help care for those who need it, whether it be in senior care or nursing. Many of us care for those in our family who have extensive needs. This may include children who require special care, or an elderly parent with an illness.
This job can run 24 hours a day, without any breaks. Caring for someone can be extremely emotional. And hardest of all, it can require you to put your own needs aside in order to be there for someone else. It can require you to face abuse and ungratefulness from someone who may not fully understand their actions. It can require you to try and stop someone you love from trying to harm themselves. Caring for a loved one or patient can be extremely rewarding… and at the same time, it can be devastating.
The emotions of being a caregiver are complex, contradicting, and can be extremely hard to understand. I love my mother and I would do anything to help her. But why do I feel resentment after missing another yoga session because of a last minute incident? I love my child more than words can explain. Why do I feel angry when I cannot participate in a short “getaway” because I have no care available? I love my husband more than anything. Why have I found myself snapping at him lately while I’m caring for him after surgery? I love helping people. Why have I felt so empty at work lately when helping the next patient?
What is caregiver depression or caregiver burnout?
Caring for others is usually a part of our lives at some point. Looking after kids, elderly relatives, or patients can be a rewarding experience. But when it starts to consume your life, it can have serious consequences for your mental health.
In some cases, caregiving can be so demanding that the caregiver starts to make sacrifices of their own health and well-being in order to meet the demands of the person needing care.
Any long term situation that requires you to put your own needs last can build up (even unconsciously) resentment, anger and self esteem issues over time. If there is no other support in this situation, caregiving can become emotionally taxing and physically draining. This leaves caregivers vulnerable to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
“To the world, you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
Often, we will simply feel like we’ve “hit a wall” after extended periods of caring for someone without the right support and boundaries in place. Symptoms of depression like extreme fatigue, anger or irritability, trouble sleeping or weight gain or loss are very common.
Women as main caregivers
Women are proportionally more likely to develop caregiver depression or caregiver burnout. Because it can be hard to find or afford additional support and care, many women are left to take on full-time care for someone on their own. This might also be because of our overwhelming dominance in caregiver jobs like nursing, care aide, or special needs companion.
Traditional gender roles have long assigned the “caring” roles like childcare and elder care to women. They have encouraged women to be “motherly” outside the house and this has contributed to our dominance in most caring professions. To compound this, many women still have full-time caring duties at home with their own family, once their work shift ends.
In some cases, the caring duties barely stop for a few hours of sleep each night. Without the proper support and boundaries, many women sacrifice too much of their time, energy and sanity caring for others. In the long-term, this is not sustainable. We start to see consequences trickling in with our mental health, overall health, and happiness.
Caregiver depression symptoms
Just keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list by all means. Depression feels and looks different for everyone. And make sure you see your doctor or health care provider for a proper diagnosis, if you think you might be experiencing caregiver depression. It’s really important to get a diagnosis, so you can find the help and support you need to heal.
What can you do to avoid caregiver depression?
The two most important things for a caregiver’s mental and overall health is having enough support and enough boundaries.
This means that ideally, you are not the sole person caring for an individual. You still have time to live your own life outside of your caring duties. Often, when we care for a parent, this means having them come live in our home. The following scenario might sound all too familiar to you.
In the morning, you get the kids ready and make sure your parent has everything she/he needs. You do the school run and go to work. At lunchtime, you dash home to check on your mom/dad and heat up some food. After work, you pick up the kids. They finish their home work and play while you check in on your mom/dad, make dinner, prep lunch for tomorrow, finish off some laundry and clean up.
Your mom/dad needs to go to a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, so you have to take time off work. Your partner offers to drop off and pick up the kids to help, but you will still have to take time off work. You have dinner, clean up, and get everyone to bed. You still have to get the lunches done and sort out tomorrow. By the time you finally get to sleep, you have not even had a minute to yourself all day. And you know you will wake up tomorrow just to do it all over again…
Realistically, as time progresses, your mom/dad will need more and more care. It is simply not reasonable to expect to do all this by yourself. Having a sibling share the care with you is helpful. You can also apply to a community or state-funded program to have a care aid assist you. With no time to yourself, you will burn out over the long term and face mental and physical health issues. This will likely leave you unable to care for your mom/dad.
Think of self care and taking time for yourself like putting fuel in the tank to keep everything running. If you do not fill up the tank, everything will come to a grinding halt. Often, as caregivers, we feel guilty for taking time off. We feel like we are trying to get out of our duties. We don’t want to look selfish or egotistical. In fact, self care is quite the opposite. That’s why it is so important that you get the support you need to have time to self care. You need to keep refueling the tank.
Having other people involved in the care also lets you set healthy boundaries. This ensures you do not sacrifice certain things in favor of your caregiving duties. As caregivers, we tend to get way too little sleep. And sometimes, we might forget to eat because we are so busy trying to make sure we are doing a good job. As time goes on and we become more and more worn out, it might even be too much to shower, shave, and take care of ourselves.
Having healthy boundaries means that you know when to say “no” in order to look after your own health. This can be one of the hardest things to do because you might feel very guilty for taking time off. But, as we just talked about, you need to refuel your tank. Taking care of your mental and physical well-being is a huge part of that. And setting necessary boundaries to achieve that is vital for you staying healthy in the long term.
Between a rock and a hard place
Unfortunately for some of us, sharing the duties and setting boundaries isn’t always possible or affordable. You might not have any siblings to share care of your parents with. Or, the care might involve one of your children and you are a single parent. If you find yourself being the only caregiver for someone over the long term, you will need to manage things as best as you can, with the resources you have available. Here are some suggestions on what you can incorporate.
Maintain your social relationships
While caring for someone can consume your schedule as you work around their routine, it is absolutely crucial to find the time to maintain your social support systems. Even half an hour a few times a week can be enough time so see some friends, hear other perspectives and talk about something new.
If you don’t have a lot of friends, try signing up for a new class to meet new people. Start with a small time commitment, but try to keep it consistent. It’s vital for you to go out of your way to make this time available so that you can socialize and check in with friends. Social contact outside the place of your caring duties will help you feel supported and more balanced.
Self-care to avoid caregiver depression
Equally important to maintaining social relationships is maintaining a routine of self care. That means that you have time to yourself to care for yourself in whatever way you need. This may be having a long bath. Or having time to get your hair done. Maybe you want to go to a movie you really wanted to see. Or you might simply want quiet time to read a book alone or meditate. Anything that gives you back energy and joy is considered self care, and it is absolutely vital to your mental health.
Remember, if you don’t find the time to do some self-care, you run the risk of depression or burnout. This will ultimately lead to you not being able to fulfill your caring duties at all. Yes, here is where we cue the oxygen masks in an airplane analogy again. Taking time for yourself is like preventative maintenance for your mental health. It is absolutely crucial that you start to build self care routines into your day, to stay mentally and physically healthy and resilient.
Focus your energy on the things within your control
It can be hard to accept that your elderly parent has Alzheimer's and caring for them consumes much of your day. The key is to try and focus on anything about the situation that can be changed in order to improve both of your lives. Can a professional come help take care of your mother? Does her housing need to change in order to make it safer for her over the long term? Do you need to make changes to your work hours in order to take on more care for her? These are all things that can be changed, even when her condition cannot be.
Online support groups
Fortunately these days, there are many support groups online that will give you access to information, resources, and news that can be really helpful. Finding a community of people in similar situations working through similar challenges and emotions can go a long way in making you feel less isolated and alone. They can also be a great place to learn coping strategies unique to your form of caregiving.
I know several single moms who are caring for children with disabilities. Their days are filled to the brim and they don’t have any time to go out and self care. Online groups are the only thing they can squeeze in once in a while and it helps them feel more in control and balanced. There are many single parents in the online group and they provide support, encouragement, tips, and help with finding assistance and sometimes recommend therapists or doctors. If you don’t have time for anything else, this might be an option for you.
Therapy to help with caregiver depression
Sometimes you just need to talk things out. Or you need a safe space to express feelings that don’t make sense. Many therapists have special skills in helping caregivers manage the depression and anxiety it can cause. If you are having trouble finding someone who can fit into your schedule, consider online therapy that might be easier to work into your life.
It is important to recognize that caring for someone else is an extraordinary feat. There is no shame at all in getting tired, upset, and worn out and needing support. If you feel you could benefit from sharing with a therapist, don’t judge yourself or feel like you need to justify this decision. You are doing all you can and it’s important you refuel your tank as well.
It can be really helpful to “word-vomit” everything that you’re feeling onto paper. It helps us map out and make sense of what we’re going through. And it gives us a way of expressing it safely. Consider journaling in a book, online, or with an app to help get through challenging times in caregiving. Equally important is to focus some of your writing on the things that are going well. Make sure to celebrate all the small victories in caregiving. It’s one of the toughest jobs out there, so give yourself the recognition you deserve.
If you find yourself with symptoms of depression or anxiety while taking care of someone else, know that you are not alone. Ask for help, see a therapist or your doctor and make the time to get the support you need. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for yourself is the best thing you can do to ensure that the person you love has a healthy caregiver for many years to come.
Caring for someone can be very rewarding, but it is also an extremely complex emotional situation. With healthy children, they usually grow up and we anticipate a positive outcome. There may be incidents like a broken arm or a fight at school. But generally kids will grow into healthy, independent adults with their own lives and families.
Caring for a disabled child or a terminally ill parent brings a whole set of deep, contrasting emotions with it.
You may constantly be worried about survival, if your child has severe allergies and stops breathing, for example. Or, one of your parents might have a stroke and you don’t know the long-term consequences. You might also be in a situation where your loved one is terminally ill and you deal with the fear of death and seeing them suffer.
I would encourage you to take a moment to breathe. Acknowledge that what you are doing is extraordinary and incomparable. Not many people realize how difficult caring for someone really is and all the ups and downs that are involved on a daily basis.
And know that even if the person you care for cannot express it right now, your time and your care is appreciated, and your sacrifices are valued. Thank you and be well!