Defeating Caregiver Depression

October is Depression Awareness Month. For last year’s event, the Hand in Hand e-newsletter took a look at ways to help older adults avoid depression, which can have a negative effect on their quality of life and even length of life.

This year, in honor of both Depression Awareness Month and November’s National Family Caregiver Month, we take a look at the common occurrence of depression among people who are providing care for an elderly or disabled loved one.

Disabled senior woman and her husband with a male nurse on the grounds of an assisted living facility.  Focus on the woman.

Caregiving can be a full-time job and then some! Those who are providing care for an elderly loved one will no doubt be able to relate to this year’s National Family Caregivers Month theme, “Caregiving Around the Clock.” A recent study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that some family caregivers provide an average of 77 hours of care each month. Combine that with their paid work and other family responsibilities and you’ve got a recipe for stress, depression and caregiver burnout.

Contributing to the caregiver burden today is the fact that there are simply fewer caregiving family members to go around. The baby boomer generation had fewer children. Families are less likely to live in the same area. We’re living longer, so more spouses are needing to care for a husband or wife. A higher divorce rate and remarriage might mean that one adult child is trying to juggle the care of their mother, father, stepmother, stepfather … with all living in different areas of the country.

And then there’s the tendency of caregivers to think they should be able to do it alone. Maybe that’s a standard they are imposing on themselves … and it doesn’t help if their loved one also reinforces that idea: “I want to stay home, not move into assisted living.” “I don’t want a stranger in my home.” “I’d rather live with you.”

Caregiver depression can sneak up on a person. Gradually, they realize that they’ve lost their interest in things they used to enjoy. They have feelings of hopelessness alternating with anger and irritability. They have sleep problems. They eat too much—or lose their appetite. They might have suicidal thoughts. Experts say that ongoing stress and depression can harm our health, raising the levels of the hormone cortisol in our body, which can damage our hearts, memory and digestion.

If you or a caregiver you know is showing signs of caregiver depression, it’s important to get help. Talk to your doctor about treatment, which might include lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, spending more time with others, improved nutrition, counseling, or in some cases, medications.

But experts—and seasoned caregivers—can tell us that in the case of caregiver depression, the best cure, often as not, is to get some help! Have a family meeting and enlist others to share the load. When friends ask how they can help, have a list at hand. Find out about senior services in your area.

And here’s a great “prescription”: include home care services in your eldercare plan.

A reputable home care agency can provide a caregiver to help with:

  • Personal care, such as bathing, dressing and grooming
  • Transportation to healthcare appointments
  • Medication reminders and picking up prescriptions
  • Light housekeeping and laundry
  • Meal preparation
  • Home safety and fall prevention
  • Companionship to keep your loved one socially connected
  • Supervision for seniors who are living with memory loss

Home care allows family caregivers to carve out some “me time” so they can recharge their emotional batteries. It also lessens the tensions that often arise from the sometimes intense and prolonged proximity of caring for a person who needs help. Studies show that family caregivers who spend much of their time with their loved one can experience intense social isolation and loneliness—and so can the person receiving care! Home care helps them both expand their social circle.

Family caregivers also report their relationship with their loved one improves markedly when a professional caregiver is helping with personal care, such as bathing and toileting, which can be emotionally challenging for adult children or spouse caregivers.  

Home care is available for temporary respite, for a few hours a week, all the way to full-time. Talk to other family members, including the person receiving care, about sharing the cost of home care. Help may also be available from the Veteran’s Administration or other public benefit programs, long-term care insurance, or through a reverse mortgage. And remember that if home care helps you keep your paid employment, it’s likely a good investment.

One last thing to remember: University of California, Berkeley researchers recently studied a group of seniors with dementia and their family caregivers, and found that the loved ones of depressed caregivers didn’t live as long. The family caregiver motto might be: “Caring for yourself is an important part of caring for your loved one.”

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.