Taking Care of Others Can Put Your Own Mental Health at Risk: What You Need to Know
Caregivers experience many emotions, but feeling overlooked and underappreciated are probably at the top of the list.
That’s why every November the Caregiver Action Network celebrates Family Caregivers Month to acknowledge and show appreciation for the many caregivers who selflessly give their time and talent every day to help someone they love. The 2017 theme is “Caregiving Around the Clock” to acknowledge that caregiving “can be a 24-hours a day/7-days a week job.”
If you’re one of the more than 40 million unpaid caregivers of adults 65 and older in America, you know how taxing this role can be. In fact, caregivers are at an elevated risk of developing mental health disorders—like depression and anxiety—due to the high demands of caregiving.
Many caregivers may be struggling with their own health. In fact, of those caring for a person older than 65, the average age of caregivers is 63—with one-third of these in fair to poor health.
An Increased Risk of Mental Health Problems
Recent studies consistently find higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems among caregivers than among non-caregivers of the same age. In fact, 40-70 percent of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.
“Caregiving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability, has the capacity to create secondary stress in multiple life domains such as work and family relationships, and frequently requires high levels of vigilance,” said Richard Schulz, PhD, and Paula R. Sherwood, PhD, RN, CNRN in the American Journal of Nursing.
Even when a loved one is taken out of a caregiver’s home and placed in a nursing home, depression and anxiety disorders still persist in caregivers and can even worsen. Many caregivers who place their loved one in a nursing home report depressive symptoms and anxiety to be as high as they were when their loved one was in the home.
Physical health is also at risk. One in 10 caregivers report that caregiving has caused their physical health to get worse. Caregivers suffer from increased rates of physical ailments (including acid reflux, headaches and pain), increased tendency to develop serious illness, and higher levels of obesity and bodily pain.
“Being a caregiver is draining on anyone—emotionally, physically and financially,” said Liz Tassone, a long-time gerontologist and member of the Caregiver Assistance Network in Ohio. “Being responsible for another person’s well-being is a full-time job, often taken on alongside other full-time jobs. As a result, caregivers are under immense amounts of stress.”
Self-Care for a Caregiver
Just as you care for your loved one, you must not neglect your own health. After all, if you aren’t healthy, how can you be expected to take care of someone else? Here are a few ways to make sure you’re taking good care of yourself:
- Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, chronic fatigue, and poor decision making. Although a racing mind can make it hard for caregivers to get some much-needed shuteye, there are a few ways to help you relax at bedtime: download a relaxation app, read a book about meditation, or practice being mindful, allowing your mind to slowly shut down and drift off to sleep.
- Regular physical exercise works wonders for your mental health. If you don’t have time to go to a gym, get creative with your exercise. For example, park further away from your destination so you have to do a little more walking.
- Take time for yourself. Just because you have a loved one at home that needs constant help doesn’t mean you can’t have “me” time. Taking just a few minutes to yourself each day helps you recharge and rejuvenate, allowing you to become a more effective caregiver. “Me” time can consist of any of your favorite hobbies or interests. And although it can be hard, ask friends and family for help by taking over your caregiving duties for a little while.
As a caregiver, your life is non-stop and selfless. If you disregard your own health, there’s a greater chance you won’t be around to care for your loved one. Do you both a favor by keeping your own mental, emotional and physical health in a good place. You’ll both greatly benefit.
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