According to the American Psychological Association, 66% of unpaid family caregivers experienced at least one mental health symptom as a result of caring for an aging parent or spouse. Caregivers also reported health problems like higher levels of depression and lower levels of subjective physical health, self-efficacy, and overall well-being than non-caregivers.
Some family caregivers also find they have fewer opportunities to engage in social activities as the needs of the loved one they’re caring for takes precedence.
Although, caregiving can negatively impact your social and emotional well-being these consequences should not be considered inevitable. As such, learning strategies to overcome caregiver loneliness and depression can be beneficial.
It should be noted that depression and loneliness are not the same.
Depression is defined as having a feeling of doom and gloom all the time. It is not defined by a specific time frame but rather by the continuous, throbbing, all day, every day, like a sad cloud that never goes away.
Whereas loneliness is characterized by fewer than desired social interactions. Individuals who are depressed might experience loneliness and vice versa.
However, loneliness is considered a symptom or a contributing factor to social isolation and depression, rather than a medical diagnosis. Depression is a medical condition, usually treated with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medications under the direction of a doctor or licensed therapist. The symptoms of depression and loneliness often overlap, especially among caregivers.
However, there are also distinct differences between the two:
Symptoms of Loneliness include increased blood pressure, social anxiety, insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep, sadness, crying, and feeling disconnected or hopeless.
Symptoms of Depression include a deep and intense feeling of sadness that does subside, insomnia, tearfulness, guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and anxiety.
It should be noted that caregivers should not try to distinguish between symptoms of loneliness and depression. Rather, a more useful approach is to reach out to the doctor or healthcare provider for him or to make that final determination.
There are, however, strategies that might be useful in overcoming loneliness or depression.
Being a family caregiver often means having a lot of responsibilities on your plate. Sometimes, the caregiving stress and caregiving duties become so overwhelming that you may end up ignoring your mental health. As a result, caregivers experience caregiver depression and loneliness.
For caregivers taking care of a loved one with dementia, feeling lonely is common. You may feel that there is no one to talk to and nobody with whom you can share your feelings.
The following are eleven approaches that might be helpful in avoiding loneliness and strategies to cope with symptoms of depression.
Before you begin to express your feelings, you need to acknowledge them first.
Suppressing your negative thoughts will only make things worse unless you know a way of dealing with them in a healthy way. Even bad thoughts are valid and normal for caregivers.
Bad thoughts or feelings don't make you a bad person; they appear in your mind because you are a human, and you can only do so much.
That’s why taking care of your mental health and discussing what you really feel is necessary.
Express how you are feeling, even when those feelings are negative.
Whether you are experiencing loneliness or depression, having a close confidant with whom you can openly express your feelings provides the opportunity to flesh out your emotions surrounding caregiving.
It is not uncommon to overlook the importance of sharing feelings with others but connecting with people who care about you genuinely can be good for your mental health.
If you provide care for an older loved one who requires long-term care due to diseases like Alzheimer's disease or dementia, try to practice self-care as much as possible.
Reaching out to family and friends may seem like a huge task, especially if you are a self-sufficient person who doesn't like bothering anyone.
However, it is necessary to find help to avoid caregiver loneliness or social isolation.
Another wonderful place where you can connect with individuals who are going through similar challenges as yours is by attending an online or in-person caregiver support group.
There are numerous caregiver support groups that you can join online on different social media platforms like Facebook or in person like those provided by your Alzheimer’s Association. The purpose of these groups is to connect you with individuals who share similar experiences with each other so they can help one another and become a source of inspiration or motivation.
Sharing negative thoughts and the not-so-positive details of being a caregiver will be less awkward when you know that others are going through something similar.
It's good to have people in your life who you can lean on while providing senior care. Having deeper relationships and lots of social connections is also helpful.
If you have friends who love hanging out and planning meetups, go out for lunch and dinner with them to avoid becoming lonely or experiencing symptoms of depression.
Be sure to include more opportunities for social interaction as a part of your life by exploring new places, committing to participating in at least one social activity a month, and having some fun. When you give yourself some much-needed me-time, not only will you feel better, but you also perform better as a caregiver.
You don't have to plan expensive lunches every time; sometimes, going on a long drive or just sitting with your best friend in the park and having a heart-to-heart is also equally beneficial. Lean on people who you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with; they can support you without being judgmental.
If you have such trustworthy, caring, and loving individuals in your life, hold onto them and cherish the moments you spend with them. They will become your source of strength and make you strong enough to survive the rainy days.
One way to work through negative thoughts that may result in depression or isolation among caregivers is to work with a licensed therapist.
A licensed therapist will work with you to determine if you are depressed or experiencing social isolation.
One approach a therapist may use is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy where individuals learn to challenge their negative thoughts and turn them into positive feelings. This therapy can help you change the way you perceive the situation and deal with negative feelings. Although it cannot change the current situation or external events like events and people, it can bring positive thinking and hope to your life and give you strength to avoid isolation, anxiety, and depression.
Furthermore, CBT can also be helpful in restructuring your thought patterns, making you think about the environment in a less biased and clearer manner.
For instance, in case the thought of you being worthless often comes across your mind, you can examine this statement with the help of CBT and a licensed therapist. If you are interested in getting connected with a licensed therapist, reach out to your doctor.
One of the ways to overcome caregiver loneliness and depression is to get access to respite care.
Respite care refers to a caregiver’s service for the short term. If you really want to take a break from endless responsibilities and exhausting tasks, you can use some help by contacting respite care via your local Area Agency on Aging.
The Area Agency on Aging will have a list of respite providers in your community. Seeking out is necessary for long-term caregivers so you can do something you enjoy.
Think about the activities that you like to do, such as gaming, exercising, gardening, going to a park, or talking to your best friend.
You might also consider taking a long bath, reading a book, rewatching your favorite movie, or binge-watching a series.
Commit to doing at least one enjoyable activity each week to help keep your mind off of constant distress that may lead to depression.
Being a caregiver can feel lonely. Working full-time for your parent or spouse while dealing with feelings of isolation can be a challenge.
There are a lot of self-help books and resources like Ready Set Care that outline ways to overcome caregiver loneliness and depression. You can also identify books explaining the symptoms of depression to treat hopelessness, sadness, resentment, loneliness, and anxiety.
Write down your daily thoughts and emotions to understand them better. Journaling is one of the effective ways of dealing with caregiver loneliness and depression.
It can also provide you with a safe space where you can vent about anything without fear of being judged. You can also share your journal with your doctor or therapist to identify any patterns of your behavior, thoughts, and feelings.
You might also work with your doctor or therapist to identify your triggers, i.e., certain situations, people, or events that may cause distress, unhappiness, or frustration.
If you are following the same behavioral pattern over and over without realizing it, the results will always be unpleasant. As Albert Einstein says, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Therefore, it is necessary to be aware of your behaviors and feelings the next time you encounter any of your trigger sources. This way you can avoid reacting in the same way that has been unhealthy or unsuccessful in the past.
Once you start seeing improvements in your mood, cherish those moments and celebrate by acknowledging your efforts and hard work.
Caregiving doesn't require you to become a superhero. It is noble to care for a loved one. Doing so means that you must be patient and consistent to care for your loved one.
However, not everyone has what it takes to be a caregiver.
As a thoughtful and wise caregiver, you should know your limits, so you can avoid experiencing caregiver burnout, caregiver isolation, depression, and other more serious health conditions.
Providing care for a loved one can be a rewarding and humbling experience. Assisting someone you love in a time of need demonstrates what a beautiful person you are.
However, don't forget that you are a human being with needs and wants.
Therefore, it is important that you take steps to prevent becoming isolated or depressed. Should you find you are depressed or isolated please reach out to your doctor or a therapist.
Dr. Eboni Green is a Registered Nurse and family caregiver expert. She holds a PhD in human services, with a specialization in health care administration. She has extensive experience focusing on caregivers' health and wellness, with an emphasis on caregiver stress, burnout, and related family conflicts. She has contributed to several publications and given presentations that focus on training, assessing, and supporting caregivers throughout their caregiving journeys. Green is also a published author and has written three books focusing on family caregiving: At the Heart of the Matter, Caregiving in the New Millennium, and Reflections from the Soul.
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