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7 Steps to Prevent Caregiver Depression

Written by Deb Hipp
7 minute readLast updated August 19, 2019

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 40-70% of caregivers show symptoms of depression, with one-quarter to half of those caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression. Approximately 30-40% of family caregivers of people with dementia struggle with depression, according to a 2019 report by the Alzheimer’s Association.

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Learn more about caregiver depression and more importantly, how to use these seven tips to prevent it.

The Symptoms of Caregiver Depression

The first time Iris Waichler realized something was off with her father, Melvin, was the day she accompanied him to a routine doctor’s appointment when he was 90 years old. When he removed his shirt for the examination, Waichler and the doctor where shocked to see his wristwatch pushed to his elbow.

“I’ve been looking for that watch for three weeks,” her dad told them. A hospital MRI revealed that Melvin, who had an apartment near Waichler in Chicago, needed surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. Afterward, Melvin’s memory faltered often and he walked with a slower gait.

Eventually, Melvin moved to a skilled nursing residence, and Waichler had to rush frequently to the hospital for late-night emergencies. “My life became one of crisis mode,” says Waichler, a medical social worker and author of “Role Reversal: How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.”

“I wasn’t sleeping, and I had feelings of anxiety, fear, and sadness.”

If you’re a caregiver for an aging parent or spouse, you probably know those feelings well. Isolation, lack of emotional and physical support, and experiencing multiple losses can add up to feelings of depression, says Zina Paris, director of clinical services at Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles offering counseling and other resources for those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

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A caregiver spouse may also be grieving the loss of the couple’s personal relationship due to dementia, along with previous plans for their retirement years. “Loss can also extend to things in the caregiver’s own life due to caregiving such as activities, hobbies, or travel that person once enjoyed,” says Paris.

According to the ADAA, symptoms of caregiver depression include:

  • Anticipatory anxiety about future treatments for your loved one
  • Anxiety attacks about not properly following a loved one’s medical regimen
  • Avoiding meaningful activities because you feel guilty about taking time off from caregiving
  • Chronic irritability
  • Exhaustion and severe tiredness
  • Feelings of tension
  • Inability to concentrate or remember details
  • Inability to enjoy activities you once found pleasurable
  • Inability to sleep
  • Inability to talk to others about your experience as a caregiver
  • Repetitive nightmares or thoughts about a loved one, including their diagnosis, treatments, etc.
  • Suicidal thoughts because you feel inadequate, overwhelmed, or worthless

Caregivers frequently don’t get enough sleep or have time to maintain a healthy diet, says Paris. Family caregivers can also become so focused on the person who needs care that they neglect their own doctor’s appointments.

7 Steps to Take to Prevent Caregiver Depression

Caregiver support groups can help ease caregiver stress, but caregivers can also take proactive measures to minimize the risk of depression.

You can use the following seven tips to prevent caregiver depression:

1. Get some exercise.

Physical activity can ease symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Working out at the gym really helped me feel better,” says Waichler. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and can take your mind off negative thoughts. At the same time, regular exercise can improve or prevent health problems such as arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure, and may keep depression at bay after you feel better.

2. Have realistic expectations of yourself.

Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do. Are you trying to be a 24-hour caregiver while holding down a full-time job and raising kids? That’s not a realistic workload. “Sometimes you may need to consult a healthcare professional to assess exactly what care is needed and help you fill in the gaps,” says Waichler.

3. Have respite in place.

Don’t wait until you get burned out, depressed, or overwhelmed to seek assistance. “Have a plan in place, a companion, friend, or relative who can step in for a while so you can take a break,” says Waichler. Once you find respite help, try to get out and socialize with friends or enjoy interests that you set aside due to caregiving.

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4. Have someone you can talk to.

Caregivers often feel isolated, especially if they can’t leave their loved one unattended. “Have someone you can go to for advice, help, and support,” says Waichler, who found a confidante and mutual source of support in her sister. Check with your local Agency on Aging, Alzheimer’s Association, doctor or other community resources to find a caregiver support group. Talk with a good friend or therapist.

5. Know what your loved one wants.

Waichler and her dad openly discussed his wishes, such as never wanting a feeding tube. “Trying to guess what someone wants in the middle of a crisis can cause anxiety and depression,” Waichler says. Knowing the person’s wishes takes that burden off the caregiver.”

6. Pay attention to your body.

Your body offers lots of signals about your state of mind if you’re paying attention. “If you’re extra-tired, have a change in appetite or develop digestion issues, those are signs that the caregiving role is getting to you and affecting you in ways you may not even realize,” says Waichler.

7. Stay on top of your own health.

You can’t take care of another person if your health fails, or, worse yet, you die before your loved one. Keep up with preventive appointments. Prepare some healthy go-to snacks and meals and keep food in the refrigerator to grab when you’re too busy to cook.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to prevent caregiver depression? We’d like to hear your stories or tips in the comments below.

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Meet the Author
Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Missouri, who specializes in caregiving, aging and senior living.

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