Family Caregivers: 20 Tips to Protect Your Mental Health

caregiver mental health

Being a caregiver is a noble undertaking. It’s a true giving of your time and energy to help a loved one have a better quality of life. For some, this can take the form of providing companionship and a little help around the house. But for others, there can be a significant caregiving burden that requires their attention almost round-the-clock. Either way, being a family caregiver is hard, especially if you aren’t taking time for yourself.

What Caregiving Can Do to Your Health

Though there has long been anecdotal evidence that caregiving can take a serious emotional and physical toll, it hasn’t really been quantified until studies were conducted in recent years.

The toll on physical health occurs from a variety of factors, including lifting or aiding in movement for a loved one with limited mobility, getting less sleep than you need, and the toll that mental stress can take on your overall physical health, among other issues. According to AARP, 17% of caregivers believed their health has gotten worse, in general, as a result of caregiving. That was in 2015. By 2020, that number had jumped to 23%[1].

And according to a study from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, it gets worse over time; 14% of family caregivers reported declines in physical health over the first year, and those rose to 20% after five years of care. And those caring for a spouse were most likely to report adverse health issues – 27% of individuals rated themselves in fair to poor health[2].

But the mental health effects might be more damaging than that. Up to 70% of family caregivers reported clinical depression, and up to half of those met the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that those caring for elderly with dementia were twice as likely to face emotional difficulties[3]. Perhaps even more alarming is a statistic from the Caregiver Health Effects Study, which found a 63% increased mortality rate among elderly spousal caregivers who experience mental or emotional strain.

Though there are things that can help mitigate worry and provide strong caregiver support, such as aging in place solutions or investing in a medical alert pendant, caregiving for seniors still takes a heavy toll.

What Makes Family Caregiver Stress More Likely to Occur?

There are a few things that make it more likely that you will experience stress as a caregiver. Some of these can’t be changed, while others can be eased somewhat[4]:

·         Gender. Females report a higher incidence of mental health issues than males; this could be because many more women serve as caregivers than men[5].

·         Education. Those with lower educational attainment seem to be more prone to stress.

·         Financial issues. Money issues can be compounded by caring for a loved one.

·         Living situation. If you are living with your loved one, caregiver stress is more common. This is especially true if you are feeling socially isolated in your caregiving role.

·         The time. The more hours you spend looking after your charge, the more likely you will experience stress from the unpaid work.

·         Depression. If you are already prone to depression, the caregiving burden can exacerbate it.

·         Trouble coping. If you haven’t learned coping skills for the variety of challenges you experience as a caregiver, or feel that you have difficulty solving problems, your stress level can skyrocket.

·         Choice. If you don’t feel you had any choice but to become a caregiver, that resentment can lead to serious stress levels.

The Mayo Clinic offers a long list of signs you might be suffering under the burden of caregiving for an elderly loved one. If you are feeling any of these symptoms, it’s time to look after your own health[6]:

·         You’re tired all the time

·         You’re sleeping too much or sleeping too little

·         You’re gaining weight or losing weight at a rapid pace

·         You worry all the time

·         You feel overwhelmed, even by small things

·         You’ve started having physical problems, such as frequent headaches and pain

·         You get angry or irritated at the drop of a hat

·         You no longer enjoy the things you used to love

·         You often feel sad

·         You’ve begun abusing alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications)

How Family Caregivers Can Protect their Mental Health

There are several ways to protect your physical health while caregiving for the elderly, such as calling in help for lifting and moving someone who is homebound with limited mobility or turning to a variety of aids around the house, including walkers and medical alert technology, to help ensure that your loved one is as safe as they can be. But there are also ways to protect your mental health and protect it from the toll of caregiving. Here are 20 tips to support caregiver mental health:

1.       Let others help you. This can be one of the most effective ways to help reduce emotional stress – and also one of the most difficult to accept. Be willing to let others step in for an hour here and there to give you time to breathe, relax, take a shower, take a walk, or otherwise just spend some time on you.

2.       Actually spend free time on yourself. When you get that precious free time, don’t spend it planning out the following day, paying bills, or otherwise doing things that focus on caregiving. Make a special point of taking some time for yourself to do something you truly enjoy and makes you feel like yourself for a while.

3.       Have realistic goals. It can be quite easy to expect far too much of ourselves, and then feel guilty when we fall short of lofty goals. Be realistic about what you can do. For instance, if you feel the pressure of keeping up with daily meals, the last thing you want to do is promise to host a holiday dinner for a crowd.

4.       Create a senior caregiving plan. Routines are incredibly soothing. Just watch what happens when a toddler’s routine is disrupted! Though we might not throw tantrums, when our daily routines are thrown off, it’s tough to get back on track. Establish a daily routine while caregiving for elderly and stick to it as closely as possible.

5.       Accept that you’re a mere mortal. We often take on far too much and then feel guilty about not covering all the bases. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many you can stay awake for; cut yourself some slack. Doing your best doesn’t mean doing EVERYTHING.

6.       Find a support group. Support groups can provide a place to vent, gather ideas, and build meaningful relationships. Look for a local support group if you can find one, as it requires you to get out of the house to go to the meetings. But if you can’t do that, there are numerous online support groups to choose from. These folks will understand you, and it can be a safe place to express your feelings without judgement.

7.       Look to outside services. Local services, such as transportation plans, meal delivery from places like Meals on Wheels, housekeeping help, and other programs through your local senior care center can help relieve a bit of your burden. A medical alert system can ensure help is at the ready even when you can’t be there.

8.       Get plenty of sleep. Anyone who struggles with sleep issues will tell you that the less sleep you get, the more stress you feel. If you are having trouble with sleep, talk to your doctor about ways to nip that in the bud.

9.       Connect with others. Simply talking with others can lift a heavy burden from your mind, and that can improve your overall well-being. Set aside time to reach out to a friend.

10.   Keep up with your own health. See your doctor on a regular basis, have the necessary tests, and tell your doctor how you are feeling. Stay as physically active as you can and keep a healthy diet.

11.   Try in-home respite care. Look for respite care from aides who are trained to provide companionship, do light work around the house, and perhaps even perform some nursing services, depending upon what your loved one needs. While that person is there, your time is free for other things, including self-care.

12.   Try senior day care. Adult day care might be provided in centers specifically designed for that purpose or could be part of a larger senior center in your local area. You can rest assured your loved one is safe and secure for a few hours while you decompress and take care of yourself.

13.   Get peace of mind. An emergency alert button can help ensure that your loved one can get the help they need if you do step out of the house for a bit. It can also provide peace of mind even if you’re in the home with them; for instance, if they fall in the shower you might not hear them, but the medical alert with fall detection could automatically send an alert for help anyway.

14.   Look into the Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a family member. There are rules that govern FMLA, such as the number of employees a company must have or how you can take the leave. Talk to your human resources department to learn about your options.

15.   Call your local Area Agency on Aging. This agency is designed to help you. Get in touch with them to learn about local services offered for family caregivers and how to take advantage of them. If your area doesn’t seem to have one, look to neighboring cities and zip codes.

16.   Find meaning. A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that those who sought out meaning in the caregiving experience, including the ability to adapt, grow, and stay self-aware, felt a buffer against the negative effects of caregiver stress[7].

17.   Get outside. Spending even a little bit of time outdoors can help ease your stress and improve your mood, according to the American Psychological Association. From stepping outside for a deep breath of fresh air to taking a 10-minute walk to going outside with your loved one to work in the garden, do whatever you can to get out.

18.   Establish a support system for emergencies. Though it can be tough to ask for help, when an emergency strikes, you’re going to need a lot of support. Create a “phone tree” that can set notifications in motion if something bad happens and you need help immediately. You can also have a list on your phone of contacts you can reach with one text message to the group. Or set up the surprisingly affordable personal emergency response system service, such as that offered by Alert1. This provides some solid peace of mind.

19.   Pray. A study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that family caregivers who quietly prayed for 12 minutes each day over the span of eight weeks had lower levels of depression and higher levels of mental functioning[8].

20.   Don’t lose yourself. Remember the things you used to enjoy, the hobbies you used to indulge in? Go back to those, even if it’s on a smaller scale than it once was. Keeping up with the things that make you “you” can go a long way toward preserving your mental and emotional well-being as you fulfill your duties as a family caregiver.

Family caregiving is an act of love and sacrifice. Let Alert1 Medical Alert Systems help ease the burden.