Considering the number of roles and responsibilities you’ve taken on as a caregiver, it’s no surprise if you don’t always make time for your own well-being. In many cases, caregiving involves performing nursing duties, driving to doctor’s appointments, cooking, cleaning and providing emotional support for an elderly loved one—all while juggling a career and (often) raising a family.
Sadly, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who take care of both their parents and their children simultaneously (sometimes known as the “sandwich generation”) had worse mental health than those who don’t, with approximately 50% of those surveyed reporting serious suicidal thoughts within the past month.
If you’re bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders as a caregiver, it’s important to address feelings of depression, isolation and exhaustion before it’s all too much to handle.
Tips to help handle the stress of caregiving
We’ve all heard a flight attendant say to put on your own oxygen mask before taking care of a child. Well, the same goes for taking care of an elderly parent. Putting your own health and happiness first isn’t selfish; it just allows you to be strong enough to do your caretaking job better. Try integrating these changes into your routine to help you breathe a little more easily.
Schedule regular time away – Make regular plans with friends, such as a weekly dinner, or allow yourself to get a massage a couple times per month. This may mean having to ask someone else to come and sit with your loved one while you’re gone, but it will give you a chance to start fresh with a clear head when you return.
Exercise – Getting the body moving is a major mood booster because it releases endorphins, so try to make time to exercise every day—whether it’s a walk in the morning before your loved one wakes up, or a jog in the evening after they’re in bed.
See a counselor – It can be difficult to discuss the frustrations of caregiving with friends or family members who don’t see things the way you do. A professional therapist will allow you to vent without fear of judgement, provide tools for coping with emotions when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and recommend medications that may help ease your depression. Ask your insurance company for a list of mental health providers covered by your policy, or see Medicare’s list of providers on its website if you’re a recipient. If you find it easier to talk to a counselor at home, you may want to check out our review of online mental health providers.
Accept or hire help – Being a caregiver doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. Allow friends to run errands for you, subscribe to a grocery delivery service, or hire a housekeeper to clean for you once a week. Every burden taken off your chest will make your load a little lighter.
Take advantage of a local respite program – Respite care provides short-term relief for primary caregivers either in the home, in a long-term health care facility, or in an adult day care. It allows family caregivers to take a break from their elderly loved ones for a designated amount of time ranging from one afternoon per week to several weeks at a time. The National Respite Network offers a list of respite services in your area.
Warning signs of caregiver depression
As much as you love the person you’re caring for, it’s completely natural to feel overwhelmed. Because your needs have essentially taken a back seat to theirs, it’s hard not to be a little resentful (and then it’s hard not to feel guilty for being resentful). But if you feel depressed, hopeless, trapped, empty – or have symptoms listed below – you should seriously consider speaking to a mental health professional or contacting a suicide hotline:
- More frequent drug or alcohol use
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Feeling tired all the time
- Feeling numb
- Consistent headaches, stomach aches, or chronic neck and back pain
- A loss of interest in spending time with people whose company you once enjoyed
- A loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Becoming easily angered
- Feeling you aren’t good enough for anyone or anything
- Trouble focusing, thinking or planning
- Neglecting your hygiene
- Thoughts of running away or escaping from your situation
- Thoughts about how to end your life
Dealing with the financial stress of caregiving
If you’ve had to quit your job, reduce your hours, or make other drastic changes to your finances, you’re likely experiencing a high amount of anxiety—particularly due to the pandemic. In fact, a recent report called “Caregiving in the United States 2020” by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 72% of unpaid family caregivers say they have high emotional stress.
Unpaid caregivers also reported having more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and report starting or increasing substance use to cope with the stress of COVID-19 on top of caring for loved ones. Another survey conducted by the CDC found that nearly 31% of unpaid family caregivers reported seriously considering suicide in the preceding 30 days, compared with only 11% of non-caregivers.
Because financial stress while taking care of a loved one can greatly impact depressive symptoms, it may help to look into financial assistance for caregivers available through Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, or your employer’s Family and Medical Leave policy. The National Respite Network also provides caregiver resources to help pay for respite care.