A woman with a high-pressure job as a partner in a consulting firm decided to quit in order to care for her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. After a couple of years of this, she suddenly moved her mother into a nursing home, got her affairs in order and committed suicide.
This is a most extreme example of the toll family caregiving can take on one’s mental health.
“One of today’s all too silent health crises is caregiver depression,” notes the Family Caregiver Alliance. “In general, women caregivers experience depression at a higher rate than men.” Studies report that “higher levels of depressive symptoms and mental health problems among caregivers than their non-caregiving peers” and that “between 40 to 70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.”
Margaret Cook (*not her real name), is a 59-year old artist who cares for both of her elderly parents, which includes her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Ms. Cook, who is divorced with adult children, has experienced depression and sought various treatments to cope with what she describes as “feeling swallowed” by her caregiving responsibilities. “It was consuming me so I could not see clearly and make good decisions,” she said. “It’s like being on ice and you don’t ever get a grip.”
Ms. Cook is on antidepressants, sees a psychiatrist regularly, and has attended support groups. “You just break into tears you’re carrying so much weight and you don’t know where to put it,” she said. “A therapist can help you organize it instead it being this big mess.”
Women like Ms. Cook can also feel like they are losing themselves as they devote so much to family caregiving.
On their website, The Family Caregiver Alliance states: “Caregiving does not cause depression, nor will everyone who provides care experience the negative feelings that go with depression. But in an effort to provide the best possible care for a family member or friend, caregivers often sacrifice their own physical and emotional needs and the emotional and physical experiences involved with providing care can strain even the most capable person. The resulting feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation, exhaustion—and then guilt for having these feelings—can exact a heavy toll.”
Lisa Gwyther, MSW, LCSW, Director of the Duke Aging Center Family Support Program and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, is familiar with a local group, “Daughters Concerned for Aging Relatives” that is made up primarily of working middle-age women. “They are caring for parents, got marriages, caring for kids, and working,” she said. “A number of these women have come to the group and said they are feeling overwhelmed, they feel like nothing changes, they don’t know how long they can keep up that pace, that they are failing everyone and not doing a good job at anything.” Furthermore, these women report feeling a loss of self, a loss of identity.
It is important to first determine if you have depression. The National Institute of Mental Health website, the Family Caregiver Alliance and other reputable online resources offer tips. Also experts point out that even after a loved one has moved to a facility or passed away, there can still be a risk of depression from the caregiving they did.
Ms. Gwyther said that if a person has an inability to derive joy from any activity, is no longer being able to sleep or eat, and if these qualities persist for two weeks or more, it is likely depression. “There are successful treatments,” she said. “Both drug and non-drug. One of the hardest things is to convince caregivers that they can feel better.”