Spending time with family can be deeply enjoyable and rewarding. But for caregivers who may devote a majority of their free time or even the whole day toward the care of family members, there could be some extra challenges to face.
November is National Family Caregivers Month, and mental health professionals and caregivers give tips on how to get the most out of tending to their loved ones, and how to overcome any hurdles along the way that could impair mental health.
Frank Fuerst, the author of “Alzheimer’s Care with Dignity,” was the caregiver for his wife June for 17 years. He said in an email that she had early onset Alzheimer’s disease at around 40 years old. He experienced both positive and negative emotions associated with the caregiving.
Initially, Fuerst suffered from some depression while he searched for an accurate diagnosis for his wife, and also when he first became a caregiver, since new obstacles seemed to form every week. Doctors thought his wife had depression or menopause symptoms, but this was not the case.
“As I gradually learned to overcome my emotions, found solutions to challenges, and began to have successes as a caregiver, my confidence soared,” Fuerst said.
He believes his experience as a caregiver changed his life for the better, allowing him to fully develop as a person and become gentler and kinder.
HE found ways to cope with negative emotions as a caregiver. He turned to spirituality. He went to support groups to avoid isolation, to laugh and share stories and emotions. He turned to respite care for extra help. And he developed a “care with dignity” philosophy.
“I could not develop a caregiving philosophy that I could be proud of until I stopped thinking about Alzheimer's from my view and started thinking about it from June's view,” Fuerst said. “I wrote ideas on how I imagined she would want to be treated if she could fully communicate.”
Erena DiGonis, a licensed psychotherapist and certified health coach, said in an email that she has been the caregiver to her sister for 20 years with her mother’s help. Her sister was born with kidney failure and had 16 surgeries for other health problems throughout her lifetime.
“It deeply affects mental health, more than people might realize,” DiGonis said. “Caregiving is a major stressor and leaves people in crisis mode (basic survival) just trying to get though the day or week. This leads to burn out, PTSD and leaves you [susceptible] to health issues. It can leave little time for relaxation and can be devastating on finances.”
However, there are positives associated with caregiving, such as the pleasure that comes with accomplishments of loved ones. For example, five months after DiGonis’ sister had knee replacement surgery, she won at a horse riding competition called the Hampton Classic in the disabled division.
“My sister has been my greatest blessing and teacher,” DiGonis said. “She has taught be that anything is possible.”
She has several tips for how caregivers can cope with any negative feelings, and how they can manage their own mental health:
Be honest about your own health and how you feel.
Address your concerns about making your health and self-care a priority.
Be careful about what you eat. It is important to nourish the body with clean and healthy food.
Make sure to have fun. It can be something as simple as singing out loud to a favorite song, or going to the movies.
Keep a strong social support system.
Have compassion for yourself, and skip over self-judgment.
Permit yourself to indulge in self-care without feeling guilty.
If you notice that you’re having major mood changes, and have negative alterations in other areas of life such as sleep, appetite, tolerance level and socialization, it could be beneficial to talk to a therapist or to attend a support group to avoid further stress or burnout, DiGonis said.
Share your tips below for how to stay positive as a caregiver, and how to make your mental health a priority along with the health of the loved ones you’re caring for.