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Caregiver Support Can Help Ward Off Depression, Illness

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April 4, 2011

Life changes may increase the risk of depression in older adults. And if seniors are caring for spouses or other family members, that stress can intensify feelings of depression and even lead to illness and conditions such as diabetes. One answer is respite assistance, which can help family caregivers escape, even for a few hours a day or week.

Q. My father is taking care of my 82-year-old mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and getting worse very quickly. Dad already is talking about what he'll do when Mom is gone. He is getting worn down and depressed, but won't let anyone help much. What can I do?

More than 50 million Americans care for a chronically ill, aged or disabled loved one, according to the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA). Fatigue, stress and depression are very real side effects of family caregiving. Remind your father that he won't be any help to your mom if he doesn't take care of himself.

Research has shown that caregivers like your father are more susceptible to illnesses such as diabetes. Your dad needs support now that will continue through the death of your mother, if he outlives her. Research from the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry discovered that offering caregivers the education, skills and support that help them care for a relative with dementia can also help them cope with the death of their loved ones.

The intervention, designed to ward off depression and increase coping skills, also seems to prevent complicated grief and depression among caregivers after the death of their ill family member, says a team from the University of Pittsburgh. "Our findings show that caregiving is closely intertwined with the bereavement experience that follows," said lead study author and psychiatry professor Richard Schulz.

This study of more than 1,200 caregivers found that reducing caregiver burden; treating caregiver depression prior to the death of a loved one; and providing psychological or skills training helped the caregivers better cope with the death of a loved one.

"Family members caring for relatives with advanced disease would not only benefit from traditional caregiving interventions designed to ease the burden of care, but also from pre-bereavement treatments that would better prepare them for the impending death of their loved one," Schulz said.

Depression also can put seniors like your dad at greater risk of illness. Older adults who have had symptoms of depression – whether those symptoms occurred once, increased or remained steady over a 10-year period – may be more likely to develop diabetes than those without depressive symptoms, according to a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Each year for 10 years, study participants were evaluated for the presence of 10 symptoms of depression, including those related to mood, irritability, calorie intake, concentration and sleep. At the beginning of the study, the average score was 4.5, and one-fifth of participants had a score of eight or higher. During the follow-up period, scores increased by at least five points in nearly half the participants, and 234 individuals developed diabetes.

The study, which was conducted by Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, reported that a whopping two million older adults experience depression, and 15.3 percent of those over 65 have diabetes.

Consult with a physician or geriatrician about what's best for your dad. Then encourage him to get help. Home Instead Senior Care® hires CAREGiversSM who are trained to provide a respite to family caregivers by assisting seniors with various non-medical tasks including companionship, meal preparation and light housekeeping. CAREGivers are screened, trained, bonded and insured, and equipped to brighten the lives of older adults.

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. April 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Posted by Marie

    These are such great points. Thank you for the guidance. As you said, a caregiver can be of no help if they don't also take care of themselves. Another tip I found on the St. Andrew's Resources for Seniors System blog mention taking some quality time to reward yourself. I think this is important for all caregivers to remember.

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