When Caregiving Makes You Crazy

Q. My mother passed away six months ago, and my father is living alone in our family home, about a mile away from me. He is in the early stages of dementia, and has gotten quite forgetful lately. I have been a caregiver for him since mom died, but it’s hard with a full-time job, a family of my own, and a struggle with insomnia.

I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes, I find myself getting frustrated with my situation and I take it out on my father. Recently, a neighbor confided in my sister that she thought I yelled a lot and that I lose patience too easily. The neighbor told my sister that she thinks I treat dad like a child. I don’t think I am acting this way, but maybe I am. The situation is new to me, and with so much on my plate, I am getting very stressed out.

I want my father to have a good quality of life, and I want to be the best caregiver I can be, but I am overwhelmed. How can I treat my dad better, get the help I need, and prepare for other options for his care in the future?

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A. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mother, and your stressful situation.

Bearing the responsibility for an aging loved one can become a demanding job—especially when you have so many other things going on in your life. Caregivers themselves can sustain emotional, mental, and physical blows that may go unattended in the name of duty to their loved one. Sleep is lost; stress mounts steadily; and something just might give.

In the case of caring for someone with dementia, says research just published in the British Medical Journal, sometimes that lapse comes in the form of psychological—or even physical—abuse. Sadly, more than half of family caregivers surveyed in the study reported some abusive behavior toward the person they cared for.

In the study, the definition of abuse includes using a harsh tone, screaming or yelling, threatening to stop caring for the person, handling the person roughly, and fearing being on the verge of hitting or hurting the person. The most common forms of abuse reported were verbal, and more than a third of family caregivers said abusive behaviors occurred “at least sometimes” in the previous three months.

As you well know, the burden felt by caregivers is real and can manifest itself in a variety of ways. How can you ease your stress and help yourself to become a better caregiver? Here are some things you can do:

  • Acknowledge what’s going on. In cases of early dementia, when someone’s mental faculties may at times seem normal, and at other times wane, being a caregiver can be especially stressful. In these situations, sometimes the person doesn’t realize they’re being [verbally] abusive. Adjusting to and mourning the decline of someone you love can be very sad and emotionally taxing. So if you find yourself feeling as if you want to yell the person you’re caring for and are overcome with stress, take it as a sign to get some assistance. You, of course, have already acknowledged the issue and havve taken the first step in trying to correct it by reaching out for guidance.
  • Do the work, but reap the reward. Plenty of family caregivers acknowledge the challenges, stress, and exhaustion of caring for a loved one. In fact, more than a fifth of caregivers report exhaustion at day’s end, while more than a quarter report that taking care of their family member is hard on them emotionally, according to stats on the Family Caregiver Alliance website. But caregivers also report an immense gain from having the chance to nurture that person in a time of need. Most people feel it’s well worth their while to do the work, to rediscover the relationship, to give up hard feelings, and find a new approach to their parent or spouse. Tap into some of that joy.
  • Understand you don’t need to be a martyr. Allow yourself to call on help. As you seem to be experiencing, doing it all out of duty, or feeling you have to do everything yourself, can breed resentment, feeling overwhelmed, and sometimes becoming physically ill from stress.
  • Put together an elder care team. To look out for the everyday and long-term needs of your father, it is beneficial to have an elder care team on board—from physicians and home care professionals to elder law attorneys and financial planners. This care team can advise your father and family members on possible medical treatments and allow him to make personal preferences on care, while he can still make decisions for himself. Family members on this team can also help out and provide you with assistance and much needed respite.
  • Call in professional reinforcements, for the sake of your health and sanity. The Family Caregiver Alliance notes that those who experience chronic stress could be at increased risk of loss in cognition, including loss of short-term memory, attention, and verbal IQ. Help does exist, though it can take effort to find it. Outside of getting family, friends, or neighbors to assist, your local Area Agency on Aging is one place to look for relief. The Eldercare Locator provides a database of resources by ZIP code, and our trusted referrals are also quite helpful. If a nursing home becomes a consideration, using Medicare’s online Nursing Home Compare tool is a great starting point.
  • Take care of yourself. Caregiving can be both emotionally and mentally taxing, and can easily lead to “caregiver burnout.” Please be sure to take advantage of services that offer respite and support. Read more about alleviating caregiver stress in our blog post on the topic.

Hire an Experienced Elder Law Attorney to Help Plan for Your Father

An experienced elder law attorney, such as myself, can guide your family through advanced healthcare directives, Medicare and Medicaid issues, estate planning, family caregiver agreements, and other documents that safeguard the current and future care of your father.

To make an appointment for a no cost initial consultation, please contact us:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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