Are You at Risk for Caregiver Depression? Know the Symptoms and Treatment Options


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Caregiver depression is like the unspoken secret of home care. It’s something that many people experience but rarely talk about. Yet it can be as costly, debilitating, and heartbreaking as any other illness. Constant demands on your time, energy, emotions, and patience can often contribute to feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and exasperation. Read on to see if you have any of the warning signs of full-blown depression — and what you can do about it.

Do you have these common symptoms of depression?

If you experience any of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, you may be suffering from depression:

  • Change in eating habits resulting in unwanted weight gain or loss
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of interest in things or activities you once enjoyed, or people you liked
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Suicidal ideations or attempts
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, including headaches, backaches, stomachaches, digestive problems, and more

Seeking treatment

The first thing to do if you suspect that you have caregiver depression is to see a medical professional — either your primary care physician (PCP) or a mental health professional (or both). Your PCP can perform a physical exam to rule out any causes of depression that aren’t related to brain chemistry. This should be done as soon as possible because certain conditions and medications can produce depressive-like symptoms.
If your PCP gives you the all-clear, he or she may be able to recommend a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or similar clinician who diagnoses and treats depression. If not, ask for referrals from a knowledgeable person that you trust. This could be a friend, a clergy member, or your health insurance provider.

Your options in treating depression

The most common treatment options for depression are therapy and antidepressant medication. These methods can be used exclusively or in combination. Medications frequently used include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s), which include drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Tricyclics, such as Elavil and Pamelor can be used as well, but tend to have more side effects than SSRI’s.
As far as therapy goes, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common modality used for depression today. It focuses on changing thought patterns (cognition) in order to change corresponding actions (behaviors). These patterns can include self-defeating beliefs and expectations, which is common among caregivers who try to “do it all.” CBT also focuses on the development of coping skills, which caregivers need to deal with the issues they face.

Other ways to fight depression

You don’t have to rely solely on medical professionals when battling caregiver depression (though you should discuss any other remedies you’re considering with them). There is much you can do on your own as well, including the following suggestions from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)[1. “Helping Yourself,” https://www2.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Mental_Illnesses/Depression/Women_and_Depression/Depression_Tips_Helping_Yourself.htm]:

  • Exercise. Arranging time for exercise is sometimes difficult for caregivers, who often put others first. However, if you can manage it, exercise has been linked to lower levels of depression.
  • Make time for recreational activities. Another task that can be hard for caregivers, carving out even a small amount of time for yourself can have an impact on depression
  • Ask for help when you need it. Friends, family, support group members, or a home care agency can be excellent resources for additional assistance.

Caregiver depression doesn’t just disappear

If you recognize the signs of caregiver depression in yourself, it’s important to understand that this isn’t something that will simply go away on its own. You may need active treatment in order to get your symptoms under control. Contact your physician or mental health practitioner to determine your next steps. Talk to your caregiver support group, if you have one.[2. “Caring for the Caregiver,” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/caringforyourparents/handbook/caringcaregiver/supportgroups.html] And remember, no matter how bad things seem, you are never alone in your struggle. Others have coped with this type of depression, and so can you.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

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