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Caregivers Feel Helpless, Need Help

Home Health Agencies, Social Workers Can Help Lift Family Caregivers' Burden

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Suzanne Mintz, president and cofounder of the National Family Caregivers Association, has suffered four bouts of depression during the three decades she has taken care of her husband, who has multiple sclerosis. Although he is in a wheelchair, he works every day. But he needs help with the basics of daily life -- personal hygiene, etc., she tells WebMD.

"You have to be aware of what's going on with yourself," she advises. "If you're sad, blue, not sleeping, not eating right, you are probably depressed. One thing depression does is rob you of initiative and the ability to make good decisions. Once you start spiraling into it, you don't know you can pull yourself out without help. That's why it's so important to recognize signs of depression."

Depression can compromise your ability to be an effective caregiver, she says. "That's the message caregivers will listen to." Also, family members and friends should be aware of depressive symptoms in a caregiver.

"Getting help helps," Mintz says. "Being a caregiver is more than a one-person job. Get beyond the pride and the feeling that you're supposed to do this all yourself. That just isn't the case. If you're caring for someone bigger than you are, who needs multiple procedures, someone with dementia, you need help. You may be caring for kids, have a job -- multiple responsibilities, being tugged in so many other directions. It isn't realistic to think you can do it all alone."

Her suggestion: If you're caring for a senior, contact your area agency on aging. Contact other local volunteer chapters, like the American Cancer Society, Multiple Sclerosis Society, and Alzheimer's Association. Contact your county office of disability and aging. Contact your church.

"This is research someone else can do for you," Mintz says. "Let them make the phone calls, then report back to you. That's a huge benefit to know your options."

Also, if your patient has been hospitalized recently, talk to the hospital social worker or discharge planner. "They should know about these things," she says.

Other studies have shown that depression is very, very high among family caregivers -- some 60% experience depression, Mintz tells WebMD. "Exercise helps to prevent depression. But people need to realize depression is an illness, it's an issue of brain chemistry. Getting depressed, getting help for depression -- neither is a sign of weakness."

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