Let’s Talk Mental Health: When caregivers need careBy: Oscar Wright, Ph.D.
The extraordinary feats of our mythical superheroes, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America, pale in comparison to the strength, stamina and compassion of our real life, unsung heroes: family caregivers. While caring for a loved one is expected of close family members, the daily life of a caregiver can be one of sleepless nights, unceasing anxiety and unrelenting strain and stress. While caregiving is to be celebrated, it often comes with a cost.
As of 2004, there were 28.8 million caregivers in the United States, with 3.4 million (12 percent) in California; the largest percentage in the nation. A whopping 16.8 million caregivers care for special-needs children under 18 years old. In addition, 78 percent of adults living in the community and in need of long-term care depend on family and friends as their only source of help. Sixty-one percent of caregivers are women.
But what happens when unconditional kind and loving acts of caregiving conflict with the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the caregiver? This type of condition has been aptly named "compassion fatigue." It results when too much focus is placed on others at the expense of protecting one's own care. Studies indicate 40-70 percent of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. About one out of every 10 family caregivers reports that caregiving has caused their physical health to deteriorate. Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver's life.
Compassion fatigue is not a disease, but a set of symptoms that may include any one or combination of these:
• Feeling overwhelmed
• Feeling depressed
• Sleeping too much or too little
• Gaining or losing a lot of weight
• Constant fatigue
• Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
• Becoming easily irritated or angered
• Feeling constantly worried
• Frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
• Abuse of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs
• Decreasing interest in work
• Withdrawal from social contacts
What can you do to avoid or minimize issues of compassion fatigue? To begin with, never dismiss your feelings as "just stress." Caregiver stress can lead to serious health problems and you should take steps to reduce it as much as you can. Consider the following interventions:
• Professional help: Consult with professionals to explore burnout issues.
• Support groups: Attend a support group to receive feedback and coping strategies.
• Stay anchored: Establish "quiet time" for meditation, prayer, yoga, etc.
• Task share: Rotate caregiving responsibilities with family or friends.
• Technical assistance: Seek help talking with doctors and other health care professionals.
• Stay healthy: Exercise daily and maintain a healthy diet.
• Keep balance: Stay involved in hobbies, sports and recreational activities.
• Understand limits: Be aware of your caregiving limitations.
• Respite care: Taking some time off from caregiving can reduce stress. "respite care" provides substitute caregiving to give the regular caregiver a much-needed break.
Science shows a human body generates approximately 100 watts of electricity; equivalent to a single household electric bulb. In the realm of mental health, let's make sure the hope-giving light of caregivers never dims with compassion fatigue.
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Oscar Wright, Ph.D. is the CEO of United Advocates for Children and Families, a statewide nonprofit that provides support to parents, families, children and youth experiencing mental health challenges. Visit www.uacf4hope.org.