November 18, 2020

Aging, Mental Health and Caregiving

Senior man and son fishing together at the end of a dock
Family caregivers might assume that mental health issues like depression are a normal part of aging, but that’s not necessarily acurate. Many people age vibrantly, without being affected by any sort of behavioral or mood disorder.

That said, it’s true there are as many as 8.4 million family members in the U.S. caring for relatives who live with emotional or mental health conditions (not including cognitive impairment). If you’re one of those caregivers, you face unique challenges that make caregiving even more difficult – and more stressful – than what a typical family caregiver might experience.

 

Mental Health Conditions Affecting Seniors and Their Caregivers

The National Alliance for Caregiving published On Pins and Needles: Caregivers of Adults with Mental Illness, a report on mental health caregiving. The study found that the average mental health caregivers are women who are 54 years old, though most are ages 45 to 64 (54%). They’re typically caring for a relative (88%) with one of the following conditions:

  • Bipolar disorder – 25%
  • Schizophrenia – 25%
  • Depression – 22%
  • Anxiety – 11%
  • Alcohol or drug abuse – 28%

 

If you’re caring for a loved one with any of these types of disorders, you may be dealing with challenges other family caregivers never grapple with, such as:

  • Providing full or partial financial support to your loved one
  • Managing their medication and complex medical care coordination
  • Being the sole caregiver, because no other family members are able or willing to assist
  • Investing much more time and effort into care advocacy for your loved one
  • Higher levels of personal stress and daily care burden than other family caregivers

Most older adults to not suddenly receive a diagnosis of a serious mental health condition like bipolar disorder later in life, but conditions like depression or anxiety can arise in older age. Any significant or prolonged change in your loved one’s behavior or mood deserves to be evaluated by a mental health professional.

 

Finding help for mental health issues

Accessing mental health services is an issue, in general, and older adults, in particular, often balk at seeing a mental health specialist. You may find your loved one resists the idea of seeing a therapist or counselor due to stigma or for more practical reasons, such as paying for treatment, finding a provider or getting transportation to appointments. This resistance to getting appropriate behavioral health care can make your caregiving role even more stressful.

Beyond the interpersonal challenges of getting your loved one the right care for a mental health condition, you may also experience issues with their health insurance coverage, finding providers, dealing with in-patient mental health stays and other challenges the average caregiver never copes with. Learning how to manage these challenges – along with your own well-being – can make you a more effective caregiver.

 

Help for Mental Health Caregivers

To help you navigate the challenges of mental health caregiving, the National Alliance for Caregiving created Circle of Care, a free mental health guidebook that can help you understand the challenges of finding and receiving care in the mental health system. The guidebook also provides disorder-specific symptoms and a four-part caregiver health self-assessment to assist you in understanding your own physical, spiritual, emotional and financial health.

 

The Circle of Care guidebook delves into 12 areas of mental health caregiving that affect family caregivers, including:

  • Finding the right provider
  • Communicating with mental health professionals
  • Getting an accurate diagnosis
  • Health insurance considerations
  • Community support services
  • Planning for the future
  • Family involvement
  • Caring for yourself, as the caregiver

Taking care of a relative with a lifelong mental health condition takes patience and stamina, but don’t forget the self-care. You cannot serve from an empty well. Don’t hesitate to call on family members to provide you with respite – or to schedule a professional caregiver to give you time to pursue your own interests and refresh yourself mentally and spiritually. You deserve it.