Caregiving

Imagine being suddenly called on to be a nurse, a chauffeur, a personal chef, a therapist, and a housekeeper – and more – all at once. This might be a little overwhelming. But those are the roles a family caregiver must fulfill. An estimated 1 in 3 American adults provides care to one or more other adults. The complex emotional toll that caregiving takes cannot be ignored. It’s a rewarding job, but an emotional one. Many caregivers report that the experience is a positive one. But at the same time, depression and anxiety levels are high among caregivers, showing that there are definite emotional side effects of caregiving.

Stress

Caregiving is stressful. It actually combines multiple stressors, such as uncontrollable and unpredictable situations and physical and psychological strain over a long period of time. Caregivers can feel a loss of control and a lack of choice in the situation, which also adds to the stress of the job. Caregiver stress levels rise with more difficult caregiving situations, like caring for a family member with dementia, physical disabilities, or advanced age.

Depression

The difficult job that caregivers undertake can be a trigger for depression. Caregivers experience higher depression rates than the general population. At least 20% of family caregivers suffer from depression, which is about twice the rate of the rest of the population. This rate increases for Alzheimer’s caregivers; about 41% of these caregivers experience depression. Early attention to depression symptoms is important, and can help prevent the development of a more serious depression. It’s important for caregivers to recognize the signs, including unrelenting negative thoughts and emotions that don’t go away, changes in sleep, and lack of motivation.

Guilt

Guilt is a common emotion for caregivers. As hard as caregivers work, it sometimes feels like it’s not enough. Caregivers have to divide their time and energy between their ailing family member and the rest of the world. If they choose to spend time with someone else, that’s time they “should be” spending with their patient. Guilt can arise when caregivers see all the things their family member can’t do anymore, but they (the caregiver) can. Caregivers may feel temporarily angry that they’ve been forced into the caregiver role. These emotions may even trigger more guilt, starting an emotional cycle of guilt.

Clinical psychologist Barry Jacobs recommended that caregivers take a realistic approach to their job. No one is going to be a perfect caregiver, so try to accept and move past situations where self-criticism and guilt make you feel imperfect. Accept the guilt, too. Jacobs suggested that caregivers not aim for “guilt-free” caregiving, and work on working hard and doing the best they can instead.  

Isolation

Caregiving is time consuming, which results in less time the caregiver can spend with spouses, children, and friends. This can lead to feelings of isolation as these support networks dwindle. We get more support than we realize from spending time with family and participating in clubs, activities, and hobbies.

Coping with Caregiving

Over time, the emotional toll and stress of caregiving can damage a caregiver’s own health. Over 20% of caregivers say their own health has suffered due to stress. Dr. Diane Mahoney, professor of geriatric nursing research at MGH Institute of Health Professions wrote, “We know family caregivers are under a particular amount of stress. And stress over time can cause them to become ill.”

It’s important to take care of your own health – mental and physical. Enlist others to help with caregiving duties. Make sure to get enough sleep. Don’t skip your own doctor’s appointments, shots, and screenings. Find a support system to process the complex emotions that come with caregiving with, whether it’s friends to vent to or a support group to discuss the difficult moments with.