(Source: MHA Lancaster)
(Source: MHA Lancaster)

Who are the caregivers of the world? According to the definition, a caregiver is "a family member or helper who regularly looks after a child or sick, elderly, or disabled person."

That definition seems simple enough, right? When you become a caregiver, though, it is anything but simple.

Only if you have been a caregiver do you understand that it is life-altering. Any and all time and energy you have goes into the care of another human being. That may sound dramatic, but if it does … you have never been a caregiver. It is frequently overwhelming, which is why more than 50% of caregivers are living with signs of clinical depression.

What are the signs of clinical depression? They can include:

  • Feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Loss of Interests in typical activities
  • Tiredness/lack of energy
  • Anxiety, agitation, restlessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Trouble thinking/remembering things
  • Reduced appetite/weight loss or increased cravings/weight gain

A combination of symptoms must be present continually for at least two weeks for a diagnosis of clinical depression to be considered by a physician.

Many people don’t understand the real nature of caregiver’s depression. Most caregivers are family members, people who are providing care for a loved one out of necessity. That loved one is ill or living with a disability, has challenges or special needs. The caregiver learns to structure his or her day around the person they are caring for. Life becomes about routine, someone else’s routine.

A caregiver can be doing this out of love, but it is easy to lose yourself in that love. It is also easy, after a while, to lose track of the love among the routine, exhaustion and monotony of a life that is not yours. You are living a life for someone else, not for yourself. You can begin to feel invisible and have a level of inexplicable guilt for wanting some time to yourself.

Caregivers need self-care, but many can't or don't make the time. They are balancing their loved one’s medical appointments, meal planning, therapy, mental health, physical health. For younger children, school advocacy can be a full-time job in itself.

Managing finances for yourself and a family member with challenges adds its own special kind of stress.

Two-thirds of caregivers are women, with an average age of 49. Right now, the No. 1 cause of death in this demographic is heart disease. We must be cautious. If we don’t care for ourselves, who will care for our loved ones?

It is imperative that caregivers reduce their stress. Not only is their rate of depression extremely high, so is their rate of physical stress.

To the caregivers: You are not alone. During this time of Covid-19, you may feel more alone and isolated than ever, but there is the potential for the opposite.

The pandemic has changed the world of online support, and there are many ways to reach out virtually to find assistance. You can seek self-care without leaving your loved one. Many caregivers feel that acknowledging the struggle is not an option, because they are the ones who are supposed to be in control. That is a common feeling. It is OK to get help for yourself. You can’t take care of your loved one unless you are healthy, too. Organizations like Mental Health America and United Way's 211 referral service can help you access resources.

My call out to the Lancaster community is this: If you know someone who is a caregiver, let them know they are doing a great job. Put a note in their mailbox. Drop off dinner. Do something kind. Help them in any way you can. Let them know they are seen.

Being a caregiver is one of the hardest jobs there is, but it is done out of love. With help and support of those around us, we caregivers can care for ourselves, too.

Caryn Thompson
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