What It's Like to be a Caretaker While Living with Depression

Merely Me Health Guide
  • It was over a year ago when I was invited to be a guest on The Doctor Oz show to talk about my experience of coping with depression. The show’s producer had a lot of questions for me prior to the show and especially about my life experiences. When I told him that I had lived with a mother who has schizophrenia for some years and that I also have a child with autism, he said a very interesting thing. He said something to the effect of, “There are some viewers who might wonder if your life situation caused your depression.” In other words he was asking, “Who wouldn’t be depressed with all this going on?”

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    One of the repeating themes in my life has been my role as a caretaker. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood I was placed into a role of taking care of my mother. Then I pursued a career in the helping profession. And now here I am parenting my teen-age boy with severe autism. It was an interesting question to ponder because I honestly did not know how to answer. It is one of those things, which came first? The chicken or the egg? In this case one wonders if depression develops as the result of these life experiences including the stress of caretaking or whether depression is independent of our role in life.


    My answer to the producer was that in my case, I believe my depression is biological but that the challenges inherent to caregiving can exacerbate my depression symptoms. There is much joy to being a caregiver and many rewards. But I am not going to lie. It can also be one of the most difficult and emotionally wrenching experiences one can have in life.


    If you are a family member who is giving care to a parent, spouse, or child it is all the more challenging because this is your loved one. In situations where your loved one’s condition or disorder is chronic or life-long, you may feel exhausted from the thought of providing long-term care. The financial expense can be great but you don’t get paid for your work. In fact you may have to quit your job in order to become a caretaker. The day to day stress of caring for a family member can affect the healthiest among us. But what about those of us who are not only caregivers but also suffer from depression and/or a medical condition ourselves? It becomes a case of who is going to care for the caregiver? There are no easy answers.


    The one thing I definitely know is that I am not alone. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that there are approximately 44 million American families who provide unpaid care to another adult. So this doesn’t even include parents who are caring for children having special needs. Caregivers provide about 80% of long-term care in the United States. In fact, there is one study which shows that caregivers are the backbone of the health industry. There are millions of us who will provide an average of 21 hours a week of care to another adult, usually an elderly parent or spouse, worth more than $10 an hour in the marketplace.


    Not every caregiver will experience depression yet caregivers seem to be at a higher risk for experiencing depression or other related mental or medical disorders.


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    The National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA) reports that approximately 40-70 percent of family caregivers show clinically significant symptoms of depression and about a quarter to a half of these caregivers meets the diagnostic criteria for major depression.


    • A 2008 Columbia Univeristy study showed that caregivers of heart patients boost not only their risk for depression but also for cardiac disease. It seems that stress and depression can raise the risk for heart disease.


    • On Health Central’s OurAlzheimers site, writer Jacqueline Marcell cites a statistic that caregivers of loved ones suffering with dementia are twice as likely to suffer depression than those providing care for non-dementia patients.


    • Also on OurAlzheimers, writer Carol Bradley Bursack recently wrote about how eating disorders may affect middle aged women who are caregivers:

    “Middle aged women who have become caregivers report many health issues because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control. Depression and weight loss, or weight gain, are common symptoms reported. Could the recurrence of a previous eating disorder or the development of a new one, be far behind?”


    • I was almost afraid to look up the statistics of depression in mothers who have an autistic child. According to one report published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 50% of mothers of children with autism had elevated depression scores compared to mothers of children without autism.


    I don’t want to paint an entirely gloom and doom picture here. As mentioned, there are many caregivers who do not suffer from depression. Yet the risk is there so it is wise to be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression. In addition to recognizing the early signs of depression, it is imperative that caretakers take action to prevent stress and burn-out. Getting support can help tremendously.


    I am going to give you some links to information on Health Central for caregivers as well as links to some national resources for everything from finding a local support group to getting financial assistance. If you have any additional links to information or resources for caregivers please share these in a comment to this post.


    Health Central Articles to Help Caregivers


    How to Cope When your Child has Autism or Special Needs 


    Caregivers and Depression


    Depression Prevalent in Caregivers of Loved Ones with Dementia

    How to Protect Yourself from Caregiver Burnout

    Giving and Receiving Care



    Resources for Caregivers


    Family Caregiver Alliance

    Caregiver’s Resources (from USA.gov)

    National Family Caregiver Support Program


    Medline Plus Caregiver Information

    National Family Caregivers Association


    Caregiver Resources (from disAbility Information and Resources)


Published On: April 04, 2011