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
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.
Caregivers at greater risk
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 for having these feelings-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.
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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.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Before you can beat depression, you first have to recognize it. Here are the nine classic symptoms of depression. A major depressive episode is present if five or more of these symptoms are present during the same two-week period.
- Persistent sadness or unhappiness
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Irritability or agitation
- Sudden change in appetite or weight
- Disruption of normal sleep pattern
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide or death
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Ask for help
Solo cargiving 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Have some fun
Have friends over to your home for a potluck dinner, go the theater, visit a museum or pop popcorn and watch a humorous movie. Whatever you consider to be a fun activity, make sure you schedule it into your life on a regular basis. And whenever possible, do it with others. This helps to fight the social isolation that often accompanies caregiving.
When you need additional help
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.
The goal of counseling is to help you identify the negative thoughts and replace them with more empowering ways of viewing your situation. Once you are able to do this it is realistic for you to expect the depression to improve. With balanced self-care, the support of others, and possibly the help of professionals, you can be confident that you will have the upper hand on depression. And feeling in control of your life again will enable you to feel hopeful amid the daily challenges you face.
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