When an aging parent suffers from conditions like alcoholism, diabetes, incontinence or dementia, sometimes it is all we can do to take care of them. And we do it because we should and because we care. But too often, we take on more than we realize and more than we can bear alone.
A survey from the National Family Caregivers Association shows that the number of persons who provided care for an elderly, disabled or chronically ill friend or relative is more than twice as large as had been previously thought. Today it is more than 54 million, and the number will only increase as we live longer and with chronic conditions that can be handled at home.
Most caregivers are women, many of whom also juggle work and child care. Some do the occasional grocery shopping for their aging parents; others provide round-the-clock care. And although most of these women have taken on this role willingly, the unrelenting demands exact a high toll. Some 60 percent of caregivers say they experience depression, according to an earlier survey by the NFCA. The rate is even higher – up to 76 percent – among those caring for loved ones with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The price of such depression and burnout is high, both for the caregivers and their aging parents. Caregivers suffer more stress-related illness than others their age, according to the association. And ironically, burnout is the leading reason caregivers say they eventually put their loved ones in nursing homes.
But there is good news. Experts say family caregivers can often protect themselves from depression – if they recognize the signs and seek support.
Ignoring the warning signs of depression is the greatest danger to health, says the National Mental Health Association, whose experts advise caregivers to watch for feelings of persistent sadness, anxiety or fatigue. People suffering depression often feel guilty or worthless and have difficulty concentrating.
The key to prevention is realizing that you are not alone and you should not try to take on this responsibility alone. This is the other mid-life crisis, but there’s a lot of good help out there. There are community resources and support groups – people have a huge ability to help one another.
I recommend that caregivers call the Contra Costa Area Agency on Aging (in Martinez, 335-8700) for information and referrals to local programs, such as Meals-On-Wheels, adult day care centers, in-home health aides and transportation assistance. Some programs will even help caregivers with home repairs or offer friendly visitors who stop by occasionally. Hospital discharge planners, doctors and nurses can also refer caregivers to helpful programs.
And of course, caregivers should look for counseling and support groups for themselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your aging parent or spouse.
Here are six tips for warding off depression:
♦ Accept that you might need help from others, including family, friends, neighbors, community programs, medical societies, and religious and fraternal groups.
♦ Talk regularly with family, friends or mental-health professionals. Find a support group, locally or on the Internet, so you can share your feelings before they escalate into problems.
♦ Set limits. It is OK to say “no” to taking on more than you can handle – physically and emotionally.
♦ Eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, keep a positive mental attitude and get enough sleep.
♦ Let go of unrealistic expectations and demands, including martyrdom.
♦ Keep a sense of humor.
©2007 Beth Witrogen is an Antioch writer with two Pulitzer nominations, including “Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal.” Visit her at www.witrogen.com.