Understanding Caregiver Mental Health

Caregiver Mental Health

Caregivers have higher levels of stress than non-caregivers

Mental Health has been a hot topic over the last year and a half. Caregiver mental health, in particular, has risen to the surface. That is a good thing. Empowering people to give a voice to their fear and anxiety makes it possible for them to reach out for help more freely.

Let’s talk about Caregiver mental health. While caring for a loved one can be a rewarding experience, it can also be very stressful. Providing care for a loved one is not usually a short-term commitment. As a matter of fact, the average duration of a caregiver’s role is 4 years (Family Caregiver’s Alliance Report). Because caregiving tends to be a long-term commitment, the emotional impact can build over time. The daily demands of caregiver responsibilities can be especially disheartening if you feel unprepared for the task. The feeling that there’s no hope that your loved one will get better can leave you feeling helpless.

Common Symptoms of Caregiver Stress
  • Feeling tired and run down
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Increase in unhealthy habits (drinking, smoking, or eating more)
  • New or worsening health issues
  • Overreacting to small things
  • Trouble focusing
  • Feelings of resentment
  • Social isolation
Caregiver Stress May Look Different Based on Age

It’s safe to say that all caregivers feel stress and many caregivers struggle with mental health. But it’s hard to lump all family caregivers into one category. Caregiving is something that happens in many stages of life. According to AARP Caregiving in the US 2020, family caregivers look like this:

 

alt= AARP caregiving in the us 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Though family caregivers face many of the same challenges, each generation’s needs can be quite different. Each demographic struggles with mental health in a unique way. For example, though most caregivers report feeling lonely or isolated, isolation for Millennial and Gen Z caregivers may look different than the isolation older caregivers experience.

Challenges Young Caregivers Face

Young caregivers face a unique set of challenges. Not only does caring for a loved one affect day-to-day life, but it can significantly impact planning for a career and the future. Younger caregivers often experience a loss of friends and social life. The carefree nature associated with youth is no longer an option. In addition to providing care, younger caregivers are likely working full-time and might be caring for their own young families. In a 2018 report, more than half of employed Millennial caregivers said their caregiving responsibilities negatively affected their work-life. They reported going in to work late, leaving work early, or cutting back on hours. The AARP report also found that Gen X and Millennial caregivers were more likely to receive performance or attendance warnings, be turned down for promotions, or stop working entirely compared to Baby Boomers. As with older caregivers, the practice of self-care generally takes a back seat.

Challenges Older Caregivers Face

Older caregivers, on the other hand, often experience social isolation in a different context. Older Caregivers are more likely to be retired and lack workplace interaction. They may not be as technically savvy as their younger counterparts limiting opportunities to access support. COVID has significantly impacted this demographic socially. Many social activities and outlets have been suspended or moved to virtual formats. Additionally, day and respite programs caregivers use for their loved ones may not be available due to the pandemic. To compound the situation, the need for physical distancing limits the help caregivers receive from family and friends. The nationwide shortage of paid caregivers sometimes limits options for enlisting help as well.

The Common Thread: Compromised Caregiver Mental Health

Regardless of how a caregiver is experiencing stress, loneliness, and isolation, it all leads back to the same place. Compromised caregiver mental health. A June 2020 CDC report based on a nationwide survey about the types of mental health challenges people are facing during the pandemic revealed a startling trend.  It found that nearly 31 percent of the 53 million unpaid family caregivers in the US reported seriously considering suicide in the preceding 30 days, compared with 11 percent of the other adults taking the survey who were not caregivers. Estimates show that up to 70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. As many as half of those caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

How to Prevent Compromised Mental Health
  • Practice self-care first. You can’t provide good care for another unless you care for yourself first. Be intentional about checking in with yourself daily. When something isn’t right. Fix it or seek help.
  • Ask for help. Asking for help from others is difficult, but sharing the responsibility can help you avoid burnout. Ideally, family will pitch in. If not, seek respite or daycare programs or consider hiring help.
  • Be realistic about the illness and prognosis. Prepare for what is ahead by educating yourself about your loved one’s illness. Assess your skill set and decide what you will do/learn to do yourself and what you will seek help with.
  • Use respite services. This warrants a second mention. Respite services give a break to caregivers. It can last from a few hours to a few days. Respite can be provided by family/friends, but can also be found through agencies and/or community programs. Taking a break is great self-care!
  • Find emotional support. Having the ability to express yourself is so important! Who can you talk to? Family, a trusted friend, a support group, your faith leader, or a therapist are all good options. *If you are in crisis, always seek professional help.
Are You in Crisis? Help is Available

Are you a caregiver struggling with mental health, depression, or thoughts of suicide? You are not alone and you do not have to suffer in silence. If you or someone you know needs emergency assistance, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Find more help at www.nami.org.

Liz Craven

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As I’ve been preparing to launch this podcast I’ve enjoyed revisiting stages of my own life and reflecting on how this topic became such a passion for me. While I’ve built my career on helping older adults and their families connect to needed education and resources, my connection to the aging and care process goes much deeper.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my own multi-generational family living together in one home. I was 4 or 5 when my grandmother moved into our home to help care for my sisters and I while our parents worked. Soon after, her father and grandfather moved in as well. We had 5 generations living under one roof! That was a beautifully chaotic adventure and knowing what I know now, I have so much respect for what my parents and grandmother did.

Fast forward to age 24. Newly married and pregnant with our first child, I spent several months with my in-laws to help care for my husband’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. Fast forward again to about 2009 – Wes and I have two teenagers about to head to college and his mother is diagnosed with cancer. Several years later, my mother is diagnosed with cancer. Several years after that Wes’ stepdad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his father is suffering from severe dementia. You can see where this is going right? For the better part of the last 10 years we have been the caregivers. We see it as an honor and privilege to have been able to do that for our parents.

The key to navigating our later years is being proactive about gathering information before we get there and staying engaged once we do. To be sage is to be wise. There is wisdom in taking the time to ask questions, seek solutions and know your options before the need arises.

Each week we will discuss relevant topics of aging with experts who can help us to understand and be better prepared for aging. We’ll also introduce you to some Sage Agers who are totally owning their journeys through life. No topic will be off limits and we will deliver open and honest conversation meant to educate and empower our listeners. Each episode will also be available in video and blog formats.

Whether you are proactively seeking to broaden your own knowledge, a caregiver for a loved one or a professional working in the aging care industry, this podcast is for you. We hope you will join us as we explore and celebrate Sage Aging.