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Caregivers of alzheimer's patients

Looking After Your Mental Health as a Caregiver of an Alzheimer’s Patient

*It is important to note that the following article is aimed at caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and their families only. Spectrum Mental Health does not offer services to those individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. 

Caregiving for Alzheimer’s patients 

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease – or any other type of dementia – can be a stressful, emotionally intense journey. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and its progression can be long and arduous. Care – at least in the early to middle stages – falls on those closest to the individual. Therefore, family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are critical to the quality of life of the care recipient. 

caregivers of Alzheimer's patientsWhile this form of caregiving may at times be a remarkable gift, over the long term it can become all-consuming. 

Not only is there the obvious emotional component to caring for a loved one affected by Alzheimer’s, but there is the added burden of managing practical tasks. These include tasks such as administering medication or keeping up with medical appointments, and day-to-day tasks such as feeding, and financial planning. 

Effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the family 

Just as each individual progression of Alzheimer’s can differ, so too each individual caregiving experience can vary. How different individuals cope with caring for someone with dementia will depend on many different variables: the individual’s level of resilience, the quality of their support network, the nature of the progression of the loved one’s diagnosis, and so on. 

Furthermore, as the disease advances through the different stages and the loved one’s needs increase, caregiving responsibilities can become even more challenging. 

One common effect on the families of Alzheimer’s patients is to experience emotions that parallel the grieving process. As the disease progresses the family will witness the loss of the person they knew. Over time, the loved one will lose their memories, cognitive, and physical abilities, eventually losing their personality. 

A further complication can arise when the caregiver finds themself in the role of caring for someone who once cared for them. Such changes can produce an emotional overload, not just of grief, but of confusion, leaving them sad and overwhelmed. 

The loss of personality can sometimes lead to challenging behaviour when the loved one acts in disturbing or upsetting ways. If this happens caregivers might experience harder feelings such as anger. This in turn – feeling resentment towards the loved one – can result in feelings of guilt. 

sad caregivers of alzheimer's patient

At the same time, the ability of the loved one to show gratitude for the caregiver’s demanding work will only diminish. This lack of gratitude can then fuel the resentment-guilt cycle. 

Caregiver burnout 

This accumulated burden can result in caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients experiencing further negative feelings such as anxiety or depression. These can be further compounded if the caregiver becomes socially isolated and/or sleep deprived. The caregiver may in turn suppress these negative feelings to protect the person they are caring for. This further reduces their ability to cope with the feelings, causing stress. 

This could result in caregiver burnout. 

Burnout can be a primary reason individuals seek counselling. Paradoxically it can also be the reason they don’t seek that help. 

Seeking and then accessing help may seem like extra items on an already overwhelming to-do list. However, a common experience of burnout is that if stress piles up, pushing it down will not help. While suppressing stress may help in the short-term, in the long-term the pile will only get bigger. Avoiding stress does not make it go away. 

Caring for the caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients

Counselling for caregivers of alzheimer's patients

If you find yourself experiencing any of the above difficulties, it is important to get support. Access as many resources as possible or reach out to a local support group.  Another valuable resource is friends and family. Sometimes a stressed-out caregiver’s greatest asset is the rest of the family who may not even know they are struggling. Exploring these opportunities can free you to take better care of yourself. 

For those needing extra support, research has found that caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients can benefit from counselling. 

Some of the benefits that caregiver counselling could offer are: 

  • Normalising complicated feelings that come up both in caregiving scenarios and in family dynamics. 
  • Improving your ability to stay grounded amid the stress and heavy responsibility of caregiving. 
  • Redirecting experiences of guilt and resentment into more constructive feelings.
  • Processing grief around the changes your family member will be going through.
  • Improving communications between you and your ageing loved one. 
  • Processing feelings around the shifting roles between family members. 
  • Establishing expectations and strategies to better share the responsibilities that come with family caregiving. 
  • Improving you setting of boundaries – emotional and practical – around your caregiver relationship. 

To find out more about the counselling services we offer, click here.

Finding the right balance 

In addition, counselling for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients can offer respite. Getting at least some free time is important. This can free the caregiver both from day-to-day tasks and from the complicated feelings that arise as a nature of the role. 

Often, what happens when we try to avoid certain feelings is that those feelings build up even more strongly. We may even start to identify or feel controlled by those feelings. In this way, the burden of caregiving can become an identity. Counselling can help you to see – while it’s important to allow yourself space to experience any feelings that arise – they are only feelings. 

Some experiences in life throw up greater challenges than others. Coping with a family member suffering from dementia is certainly one of those challenges. But with help and support such experiences don’t have to throw us off balance or make us suffer. 

Regaining your sense of yourself will improve your ability to be a balanced, compassionate, and effective caregiver. But – just as importantly – it improves your health and your well-being for your own sake. 

Written by: Declan Gernon, Psychotherapist, MIACP

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