Alzheimer's has a huge impact on a patient's mental health, but what about the caregiver?
It’s a very common story. Someone receives a diagnosis of a disease or disorder that will at some point require constant care, then a loved one, a parent, spouse, child or sibling, jumps into caregiver mode. Over time, as the needs of the patient grows, the pressure of being a caregiver is 24/7 and becomes more intense. What often happens is that the caregiver, whether intentionally or not, slowly sacrifices their own needs and health to make sure that their loved one is being cared for in the best possible way. One of the biggest results of that kind of sacrifice is the development of mental health problems, particularly depression.
Depression is a complex condition that can be caused by a wide range of things. Some people suffer from depression due to genetics, others because of the environment and seasonal triggers. Episodes of depression can be caused by stress, medication, grief, and loss.
When depression occurs, whether it’s for weeks, months or years, the person who is affected by it will feel a deep sense of sadness, lack motivation, and chronic exhaustion. They can even manifest other more painful symptoms.
At one point or another, everyone will experience a day of feeling sad and blue. Those are part of life and are perfectly normal. However, when those blue days become weeks and then interfere with daily life, they lead to thoughts of running away from everything or worse, suicide. This is when it could be a case of depression and medical intervention is required.
Why do caregivers get depressed?
Caregivers, especially for Alzheimer's, are primary targets for depression because they put everything and everyone ahead of their own needs. Lack of sleep, poor eating habits, lack of exercise and constant stress can cause depression. Sometimes a caregiver will develop caregiver’s remorse and feel guilty for being healthy while their loved one is suffering.
Isolation also plays a big role in depression. Caregivers will often find themselves isolated from the real world. This is particularly true if the person they are caring for is bedridden or requires to be isolated in order to be as healthy as possible.
While feelings of isolation and resentment are perfectly normal, they are not embraced by society. For example, someone who is caring for a sick spouse and who declares that they are feeling overwhelmed are sometimes told to “snap out of it and do what you have to do” or, “it’s not about you, it’s about them”. This makes it difficult for a caregiver to reach out for help.
What are the symptoms of depression?
While many people who are depressed don’t recognize the symptoms in themselves or, choose not to admit that they are having issues, there are a few signs and symptoms that you should look out for. These are:
- Changes in sleep patterns, either way too much or not enough
- Lack of motivation or loss of interest to do things
- Weight loss or weight gain with no logical explanation
- Not have any emotions, feeling numb
- Having too many emotions, feeling extreme sadness, crying all the time, feeling hopeless, getting angry
- Relying on drugs and/or alcohol to get through the day
- Letting personal hygiene take a slide
- Avoiding people
- Experiencing headaches, stomachaches, back pain, and joint pain
The appearance of any of these symptoms could indicate depression. If they don’t go away after a few weeks or they get worse, it may be time to seek medical help.
How is depression treated?
There are a number of ways to treat depression. Depending on the severity, it can be helped by simple things like exercise and meditation, or it may require a hospital stay, therapy, and medication.
Simply taking a good walk for 30 to 45 minutes, three times a week has shown to reduce the symptoms of depression. It may seem like a lot, but the trick is to start small. Take a brief 15-minute stroll once a week to get started. Then, add a bit more time and frequency to the walk and monitor how it’s affecting your overall mood. If the motivation to get started is part of the problem, recruit a walking partner, or commit to walking someone’s dog. The trick is to get started, the rest will follow.
Meditation, prayer, journalling, creative art, art therapy, music and many more activities where concentration is required can help heal the body from depression. Without even trying, these activities force someone to clear the brain and improve mental health.
The sun is a magical thing. Depending on where you live, lying in the sun might not be an option. To help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter depression, using light therapy can help to deal with depression.
How to be a strategic caregiver
There are a few tips that caregivers who are battling depression can use to help overcome their sadness.
- Don’t try to do it all. Ask for help, prioritize what actually needs to get done, and do what you can. The rest will get done at some point.
- Trust others to help and they will do it well.
- Move! Exercise! Go for a walk!
- Depression won’t go away overnight. It’s going to take time.
- Expect good days and bad days.
- Talk to people about all the feelings.
- Postpone making major decisions or undertaking big changes until the fog of depression has lifted
- Try out different ways to cope - maybe it’s coloring for 15 minutes a day, maybe it's joining group therapy.
Remember that the best way to take care of someone who is sick is to make the time to take care of yourself. Find out what tools work best for coping with the stress of being a caregiver. Take breaks. Do special things for yourself, it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while. Talk to family, friends or strangers who may be dealing with the same thing. Recognize that depression can happen, but try to not let it take over. As a caregiver, stay strong and remember that you are part of the battle as well.