Take care of yourself when caring for others

Caregiving can be emotionally and physically stressful. When you place your loved one’s needs before your own day after day, you can develop feelings of guilt, sadness and anger. All are normal feelings.

But these types of stress can trigger depression, which can take a toll on you and your ability to care for yourself as well as your loved one.

How stress builds

Here’s a common scenario: A woman caring for her ill husband begins to have thoughts such as: “I have to do more for him each year, and I’m reaching a limit to what I can help with.” For example, managing his medicines was easy, but lifting him out of bed is beyond her physical capability.

Symptoms to look for

Recognizing signs of depression is the first step to dealing with the problem. Here are some common symptoms for you to watch for in yourself:

  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Sleep problems—too much or too little
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Continuing headaches, stomachaches or other chronic pain that doesn’t go away when treated
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Frequent crying
  • Difficulty focusing, remembering or making decisions
  • Thoughts about feeling worthless or that life isn’t worth living
  • Tiredness or acting “slowed-down”
  • Thinking of suicide

Depression may be the cause if you have several symptoms that last more than two weeks.

What to do

If you’re feeling guilty or depressed because of the emotional strain of caregiving, try these suggestions from Amy D’Aprix, Ph.D., of Amy D’Aprix and Associates and a Humana Active Outlook® Advisory Board member:

  • Forgive yourself. Realize that caregiving is tough work. It’s natural to want it to end and get your life back fully. Ask for some help, take a break and try to forget about the illness for a while.
  • Forgive your loved one. If the mental capacity is there, he or she is probably aware of the wonderful care you provide. Your loved one may also be happier if you take some time for yourself. You may not be the only one feeling guilty in this situation.
  • See your doctor for an evaluation if you can’t shake feelings of being sad or are having a hard time staying motivated. You may be depressed. Untreated depression can lead to more health problems.

Your doctor will do a physical exam, talk with you about symptoms and perhaps order lab tests. Depression can be treated with medicine, therapy and/or changes to your lifestyle. You may need to try different treatments to find one that works best for you.

With treatment and support, you can feel better and be happier. Your loved one benefits, too.

Sources: Amy D’Aprix, MSW, Ph.D., CSA, From Surviving to Thriving: Transforming Your Caregiving Journey, 2008; National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov; “Caregiver Health,” AARP, www.aarp.org; “Caregiving and Depression,” Family Caregiver Alliance; www.helpguide.org; www.mayoclinic.com; www.familydoctor.org.