Can caregivers get so drawn into the world of the care receiver that their mental health is at risk? I received a private email from a reader that made me think more deeply about this possibility.
The reader said she’d been caringfor her mother in her mother’s home for three years. The mother has middle stage Alzheimer’s and can be quite "creative" about reality. The caregiver told me that she does what experts often suggest and tries to join her mother in her mother’s dementia world. She loves her mother and doesn’t mind that she spends most of her time caring for her, but is afraid that she is becoming so drawn into her caregiving that she may be losing touch with the non-caregiving world.
I thought back to my most intensive caregiving years. While I never felt the real world slipping away, I do know that my reality was different from that of many of my peers. Discussions about illness and death were natural to me, while others were often uncomfortable topics.
When we are constantly surrounded with a certain type of person or activity it most likely will influence how we think and behave, but we do need to reacquaint ourselves with the non-caregiving world fairly regularly to maintain some sort of balance.
In the writer’s case, I think there may be some danger of her getting so drawn into the dementia world by 24-hour caregiving that depression, fear or confusion could potentially become problems for her. Agoraphobia may become an issue if a caregiver seldom leaves the house, because venturing outside the home could begin to feel "foreign." I suggested to her that if she felt even a hint of any of these issues, or friends are suggesting that she is losing touch with reality, she should seek professional counseling.
I then suggested that the very fact that she was concerned about herself speaks to the issue that she needs more breaks from caregiving. Respite care through in-home care agencies could allow her some freedom. However, I’m thinking that a few hours a week of adult day care for her mom may be particularly helpful for both of them. The caregiver’s mom could likely use some peer socialization while the caregiver broadens her own world.
I felt I wanted to share these thoughts with a broader audience because many of us forget that we need to maintain some life outside of caregiving. Time is such a huge element that we just keep doing what is in front of us. However, it’s essential that the caregiver stay connected to friends and activities outside of caregiving just for the sake of mental health.
Sources:Schulz, R. et. al. Physical and Mental Health Effects of Family Caregiving. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791523/MacNeil, G., PhD, et. al. (2010) Caregiver Mental Health and Potentially Harmful Caregiving Behavior: The Central Role of Caregiver Anger. The Gerontologist. Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/716140
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.