4 min read
Finding the way forward: Mental health in family caregivers
Learn how taking better care of yourself is the first step to better care for your loved ones
One of the hardest things about being a caregiver can be the conflicting emotions—and being pulled in many different directions. Balancing the needs of others with needs of your own can feel like a battle. Sometimes caregiving brings us closer to our families, but it can also make us feel more alone.
Often, family caregivers feel like others don’t know what they’re going through. But a lot more people share these experiences than we might realize.
Who are family caregivers?
More and more people are providing unpaid care for family members and loved ones. A 2020 AARP study tells us in that year alone, 41.8 million Americans cared for adults over the age of 50. Of these care recipients, 46% were 75 and over, with the vast majority being related to their caregivers by family or marriage.
What do the stats show about who does most of the caring? Here’s a quick look at the 41.8 million people who provided care to an older family member or a loved one in 2020:
61% are female
54% are age 50 or older (with an average age of 49.4 years old)
54% are married
40% live with the person they’re caring for
61% also work full time or part time
As aging brings more care needs, older adults come to depend on others for daily support. Family caregivers report providing an average of 23.7 hours of care each week when living apart from the person they’re caring for, and 37.4 hours per week when they live together—the equivalent of a full time job.
How to know if caregiving is affecting you
When everyone seems to be depending on you, pressure can add up. Factors such as lack of choice in becoming a caregiver and conflicting obligations, like work, childcare, finances, and your own health can dramatically increase stress in a situation where most of us would rather just focus on our loved one’s quality of life.
While some stress is to be expected with caregiving, it’s important to notice when it’s getting to be too much. Caregiving stress over long periods of time can have a significant impact on your mental and physical health. When combined with less opportunity for exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and socialization, stress can even increase your risk for things like heart disease and diabetes.
Signs of caregiver stress to look out for:
Frequent feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, or sadness
Feeling over-tired, yet unable to sleep or sleeping too much
Becoming easily irritated or angry
Losing interest in activities or relationships you used to enjoy
Recurring headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
Ignoring your own health and missing doctor’s appointments
Dependence on alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
Steps to improving self-care
Each person’s circumstances are different and so are the steps we each need to take to balance out our stress levels. The most important takeaway is to know that caregiving can be hard, no matter how resilient you are, no matter how loving and compassionate.
Feeling stress is not a reflection of how much you love someone. It’s a normal response to caregiving. Taking care of someone else can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining—even when it’s also gratifying. It’s important to take care of yourself first and foremost, so that you can be there for your loved one.
Ways to care for yourself:
Ask for help
Try to offload some tasks by making lists of things other people can do, from small to big, paid or unpaid
Focus on what you’re able to do
Too often caregivers feel guilty for not being able to do everything; instead, remind yourself of how much you’re accomplishing despite the challenges
Prioritize your health
See your doctor regularly and let them know you are a caregiver; they can help you monitor stress and make sure you’re keeping up with vaccinations and screenings
Set small, tangible goals for self care
Try drinking more water, getting 30 minutes more sleep per night, stretching for 15 minutes a day, taking a walk outside, or making sure to eat a good meal; try different things to see what helps you feel refreshed
Connect with others
Isolation can be really hard, especially for full-time, live-in family caregivers; make sure you check in with a friend or partner every day or every few days
Find a support group
Talking with others going through similar situations can validate your experience and help you gain real life insight and tips from other caregivers
Seek mental health support
Nowadays there are so many in-person and virtual support services and options for counseling and therapy that can help you process your emotions and cope with things like difficult family dynamics, anxiety, depression, or loss
Find alternative sources for care
To give yourself time to reset, consider other sources for care for your loved one, even once a week for a couple of hours
In-home respite or companion care - Hire an in-home caregiver for as much time as you need each week
Adult care centers and community programs - Many cities and towns have community center or library enrichment programs for older adults; alternatively, private facilities may offer more care-oriented, drop-in services
Tip - Reliable time off each week can help you regulate your emotions and stress levels
It can feel backwards to put yourself first as a caregiver, but often that’s the only way to avoid long term burn-out. Self-care can help combat mental health challenges that ultimately affect not only your life, health, and well-being, but your family’s too.
Learn more about how respite care can help manage caregiver stress by giving you time to take care of yourself.
Join us today!