Ask the Expert: Caregiver Depression

A child looking worried at an elderly parent

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Featuring Anna Burke, MD

Question: I am caring for my mother who has Alzheimer’s, and I feel like I’m losing her more each day. I’m having trouble coping with my own sadness. Could I be depressed or are these feelings just temporary?

Answer: It is not uncommon for those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease to experience and work through the grief process, including the physical, emotional and social symptoms of depression. While these symptoms are often temporary and generally pass within a matter of months, some caregivers do in fact suffer from clinical depression.

Sadness, yearning, anxiety, concern, frustration, and even withdrawal from social activity are common among caregivers. In addition, physical aches and pains, headaches, fatigue and changes in eating habits also can be attributed to a person’s role as caregiver. However, when these symptoms persist over an extended period of time, become amplified or begin to affect one’s ability to function daily, it is possible that depression may be setting in.

Suicidal thoughts, which are not part of the normal grief process, excessive difficulty sleeping and extreme loss of appetite that affects one’s health are definitely cause for concern.

The dementia specialist caring for your loved one can be a great resource for information about counseling services and support groups for caregivers, spouses, children and friends. Support groups offer a safe place in which to share and discuss feelings, fears and frustrations about losing a loved one to dementia. Caregivers who suffer from more extreme symptoms of depression may benefit from one-on-one care from a mental health professional, which might include psychotherapy or even medication.

Depression increases a person’s risk of developing dementia later in life. That risk increases exponentially if a family history of dementia also is present.

More than 50 percent of caregivers develop depression or another medical illness as a result of their caregiver responsibilities. While caring for a loved one with dementia is a noble endeavor, it is important that caregivers recognize the risks and take steps to preserve and protect their own health and well-being.

Anna Burke, MD, is a geriatric psychiatrist and dementia specialist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. Her office can be reached at (602) 839-6900.

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