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Health & Balance

A Caregiver's Plight

How to ease the stress
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But there is good news. Experts say family caregivers can often protect themselves from depression -- if they recognize the signs and seek support.

The greatest danger to health is in ignoring the warning signs of depression, says the National Mental Health Association. Their 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," says geriatric social worker Joan Booty. "There are community resources and support groups -- people have a huge ability to help one another."

Booty recommends caregivers call their county's Area Agency on Aging 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, as well. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your aging parent or spouse.

Experts recommend the following six tips for warding off depression:

  • Accept that you may 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, and get enough sleep.
  • Let go of unrealistic expectations and demands, including martyrdom.
  • Keep a sense of humor.

Looking back, Aparicio realizes that she lost emotional balance in those first years she cared for her mother. "I was taking care of somebody else and their problems and had little time for my own," she says. "It was a vicious cycle: I was angry and under constant tension." Eventually, she became disabled with chronic back pain and had to stop working for a while.

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