Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
Depression is one of those subjects we would rather not talk about. Even bringing up the topic seems to invite a dark cloud to hover over us. But contrary to what some people think, talking about depression does not make you more likely to experience it. In fact, a willingness to openly discuss the subject makes you less likely to fall prey to a gloomy mood.
That is exactly what Helen unexpectedly discovered at her most recent doctor’s appointment. Helen had never struggled with depression her entire life, that is, until she became a caregiver. For the past two years she has been caring for her husband who has early stage Alzheimer’s. About a year ago she noticed a persistent sadness and fatigue that she couldn’t shake, even after a good night’s rest.
Helen suspected that she might be depressed but wanted to downplay it during her doctor’s visit. But it didn’t take long for the doctor to see the symptoms. He asked her to talk about her mood and it was then that she began to weep. She told of the daily struggle to provide care for her husband and the loneliness of losing the relationship with her spouse and her social life with friends. By the time the appointment was over she felt a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. In reality, nothing had changed in her outer world. But inside she admitted to herself that she was in fact feeling depressed and by talking about it started on her journey to fight it.
…she was in fact feeling depressed and by talking about it [she] started on her journey to fight it.
Caregivers at Greater Risk for Depression
There are nearly 21 million Americans who struggle with depression at any given time. And as a caregiver, you are at greater risk for depression than the average person. Why? Because many caregivers sacrifice their own physical and emotional needs for the sake of their loved one. The process of providing care can strain even the most capable person. The resulting feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation, exhaustion – and then guilt – can exact a heavy toll.
Unfortunately, feelings of depression are often seen by caregivers as a sign of weakness rather than a sign that something is out of balance. If you tell yourself to “snap out of it” or that it is “not a big deal” you may actually intensify or prolong the depression. Ignoring or denying your feelings will not make them go away.
In addition, prolonged depression puts you at serious risk for chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Oftentimes, caregivers don’t seek help for their depression because they assume it is a natural consequence of caring for their loved ones and can’t be helped. But this simply isn’t true.
Strategies to Beat Caregiver Depression
Depression can have a biological component that sometimes requires medication to help you out of it. But many caregivers experience a depression that is primarily brought on by exhaustion or feelings of loss. While you can’t magically make depression disappear, in most cases, there are ways to fight it and maintain a balance in your life that will ensure good self-care. And that translates into better care for your loved one as well. Here are a few proven strategies to help you beat caregiver depression:
- Make Time for Yourself: You need to take some time for yourself each day, even if it is only for a few moments. It might be a quick walk around the block, working in your garden, calling a friend, reading or watching a favorite television program. Whatever you choose, it should refresh you and give you the sense that you are taking care of yourself by engaging in that activity. In addition, be sure you take time to rest, eat well, exercise, and have social contact with others.
- Pace Yourself: Do what you can, when you can. It may help to prioritize your caregiving duties. Focus on those daily tasks that absolutely must get done. Schedule other tasks when you have time. Once you start to prioritize your work, you’ll notice that you actually get more accomplished. It also helps to set realistic goals and break large tasks into smaller pieces so you can accomplish something toward your goal each day.
- Ask for Help: Solo caregiving is the quickest route to burnout and feelings of depression. Most caregivers think they are imposing on others by asking them to help. But in reality many people would love to lend a hand. But they usually need to be asked. Start with family members, neighbors and friends. If you have no family members nearby, consider hiring in-home help, or make arrangements at a senior day care facility. Do whatever it takes to get regular time away from caregiving duties. Your health depends on it. Sometimes you need to fight depression with the help of professional guidance. Studies have repeatedly shown that counseling combined with antidepressant medication provides the quickest and most lasting relief from chronic depressive symptoms. Start by talking with your doctor about your symptoms. He or she can determine whether medication might be helpful and also provide a referral to a counselor in your area.
- Attend a Support Group: Support groups allow family members and caregivers a safe place to share feelings, gain emotional and moral support, learn practical information, and talk with people who can relate to your frustrations. Support groups are widely available through professional associations, hospitals, senior service organizations, and religious groups.
- Use Respite Services: Respite care can provide you with a scheduled period of relief from the demanding responsibilities of caring for your loved one. You can arrange respite care for periods ranging from a few hours to several days. This periodic break leaves you free to attend to other responsibilities or to simply recuperate and experience some rest and relaxation.