Who Cares For the Caretaker?

By Amie Koehn, LCSW

“I just don’t know if I can do it anymore,” my client said as she cried. “He just needs so much, you know? I don’t think I can do it all.”

Are you taking care of an elderly parent, spouse, sibling or an adult child? Taking care of an adult presents unique challenges. It’s hard enough providing 24 hour care for children, but what happens when the person we’re caring for is someone who has been or “should” be able to take care of themselves but now can’t?

Caregivers are uniquely prone to depression and anxiety. Most often women, caregivers devote their physical energy- meal preparation, being present with the person, perhaps helping that someone walk or feed or even bathe and toilet themselves. They expend mental energy- arranging appointments, arranging services, keeping track of medication, and even providing stimulation and direction when needed, and emotional energy- feelings of sadness, grief, frustration, futility, anger, resentment and guilt are common in caregivers.

The devotion of all this energy often results in depression and anxiety, with the effects of caregiving lasting well beyond their loved one’s death or placement of their loved one in a more structured environment. Virtually all of the caregivers I’ve worked with over the last fourteen years felt guilt. A LOT of it. Guilt about not providing enough care or the right kind of care, guilt about feeling angry or resentful toward their loved one at times, even guilt about wishing sometimes that their loved one’s life would end so that they could both be better off. Caregivers often believe they could have/should have done something more or different to help their loved one- even though they logically can’t put their finger on what that something is.

Caregivers often take increasingly less time for themselves, usually out of concern that something bad will happen to their loved one if/when they leave them to run errands or just get away for a couple of hours; or they feel awkward asking someone else to help. They stop spending time with friends or doing hobbies or fun activities because taking care of their loved one seems to take all of their time. For this reason, many develop tunnel vision about themselves and what needs to be done, and feel isolated. With all of this going on, is it any wonder that caregivers are more prone to depression and anxiety?

There are ways to make caregiving less stressful:

  • Ask for help. Adult siblings, friends, neighbors you trust can help with everything from chores and cooking to sitting with your loved one so that you can get a break. Professional respite care is also available.
  • Accept help. When someone offers to help, accept it! If they offer to help, but don’t know how to help, be prepared to name a few things that you could use help with- respite care, meal prep, errand running, etc. It doesn’t have to be a major task; even getting help with the little tasks can make life easier for you.
  • Stay in touch with community. To the extent possible it is vitally important to keep up your social activities- spending time with friends, faith practices and clubs are examples. These activities “re-charge your batteries” and help you keep perspective on life. Support groups are also quite helpful.
  • Know your limits. You are human. Humans are not built for staying up all hours of the night without a break to take care of someone, or physically managing someone who weighs as much or more than we do, or to devote all physical, mental and emotional energy toward another human being on an ongoing basis. We simply are not designed for it. With some disease processes, such as dementia, there comes a time when one person cannot do it all. It’s okay to recruit professional help or consider placement in a structured environment where they can get the 24 hour structure and care they need by a team of people who are specifically trained to deal with your loved one’s condition.
  • Keep in mind your feelings are valid.  It’s normal and okay to feel angry, frustrated, or resentful at times. These are just feelings and we have them for a reason. Taking care of someone else is very hard work; and it would be surprising if you didn’t feel this way at times. If you’re experiencing these feelings more often than not, it’s long past time to get some help.

How to know when you need professional help:

  • Feeling down, depressed, sad or hopeless more often than not
  • Loss of interest in fun activities
  • Unable to “turn off your mind”- constantly worrying about what needs to be done or what you’ve already done; intrusive random thoughts
  • Feeling resentful, angry, frustrated more often than not
  • Increased tearfulness
  • Increased feelings of guilt or thoughts that you’ve let your family or others down

If you’re having trouble dealing with the aftermath of caring for someone you love, call me! With my solution-focused approach, you can learn tools that will aid in caring both for your loved one AND YOU.