Caregiver mental health is a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. Understanding caregiver mental health and taking steps to protect it will go a long way in creating a better experience for all involved. Giving a voice to fear and anxiety makes it possible for caregivers to reach out for help more freely.
Caregivers have higher levels of stress than non-caregivers
Let’s talk about Caregiver mental health. While caring for a loved one can be a rewarding experience, it can also be very stressful. Caring for a loved one is not usually a short-term commitment. As a matter of fact, the average length 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 discouraging if you feel unprepared for the task. The feeling that there’s no hope your loved one will get better can leave you feeling helpless.
Common Symptoms of Caregiver Stress
Feeling tired and run down
Anxiety, depression, irritability
Increase in unhealthy habits (drinking, smoking, or eating more)
New or worsening health issues
Overreacting to small things
Feelings of resentment
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:
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 greatly impact planning for a career/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 may be caring for their own young families. In a 2018 report, more than half of employed Millennial caregivers said caregiving responsibilities negatively affected work-life. They reported going in to work late, leaving early, or cutting back on hours. The AARP report also found that Gen X and Millennial caregivers were more likely to receive performance/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 way. 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 may not be accessible due to a variety of factors. Additionally, the need for physical distancing limits the help caregivers receive from family and friends. The nationwide shortage of paid caregivers sometimes limits options for accessing 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 unless you care for yourself first so be intentional about checking in with yourself daily. When something isn’t right. Fix it or seek help. For a gentle, daily reminder, download our printable “Caregiver’s Bill of Rights” by Jo Horne.
Ask for help. Asking for help from others is difficult, but sharing the responsibility can help 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 and 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, along with her husband Wes, owns Pro-Ad Media, publisher of Sage Aging ElderCare Guide, serving the local community for over 28 years. Liz lives in Lakeland and is very active in the local community, specifically in the area of aging. Liz serves on a number of local boards and committees including the Lakeland Vision and Age Friendly Lakeland.