QUESTION: What’s the connection between stress and depression? I’m having trouble adjusting to my new role as caregiver for my aging mother. We get along well, but I feel either agitated or sad most of the time. What am I doing wrong?—Louis
ANSWER: My guess is that you aren’t doing anything wrong—you are just trying to adjust to a new way of living. When we step into the role of caregiver, it signals an extreme lifestyle change. It could be that these changes are coming swiftly and this is causing you some agitation. Whereas you may have been free to control your own life, all of that has now changed. As caregivers, we are usually on call 24/7 in order to fulfill the emotional and physical needs of the person in our care. Life becomes a balancing act of the highest order. In addition, there may be family friction attached to the illness of a parent. Some family members step up to be of support; others take a step back and are not available to help. Caring for an elderly parent also creates a very steep learning curve in relation to health care–administering medications, understanding medical terminology, making stressful decisions and learning to prepare special meals and snacks due to dietary restrictions. Hopefully, in time, you will develop new skills to help you manage this balancing act.
Your sadness is likely about loss—not only the loss of your lifestyle, but loss of your mother’s wellness and quality of life. Watching a parent age can be very painful and challenging. The fact that you get along well will work in your favor. In a recent article by Dr. Suzanne Koven, a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a correspondent for the Boston Globe, she hits on a caregiving emotion many helpers never recognize. She wrote: Adult children caring for parents may find themselves thrust into the uncomfortable role of bad cop. Who wants to have to tell their parents that they’re not safe in their homes or behind the wheel? But who wants to risk parents falling or causing a car accident? Trying to balance an older person’s need for independence with his or her safety can leave an adult child feeling that nothing they do is right. Age, pain, and dementia sometimes make people irritable and demanding, which may cause those trying to help them feel unappreciated. This in turn, can cause guilt. If any of these words ring true, know that you are not alone. What you are experiencing is most likely within normal range. Try to take your caregiving tasks a day at a time, enjoy the time you have with your mother, and know you are doing everything in your power to create the best quality of life for her under the circumstances. If you would like to receive input from others who are caring for elderly parents, go to www.caregiving.com/caring-for-parents-chat, a monthly chat room where caregivers can go to share ideas, tips and thoughts. Chatting with others in the same situation might lower your agitation level and also temper your feelings of sadness.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.