Support network is essential to managing caregiver stress

Q. I am caring for my elderly mother who had a stroke. We have no relatives where we live. The people from her church have not helped, and we can’t afford to hire anyone more than a few hours a week. Can you give me some suggestions that will help me cope with my stress and depression?

A. You are not alone. Over 65 million Americans are primary caregivers for family members. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 50 percent of caregivers report feeling overwhelmed and experiencing high levels of emotional and physical distress.

Some indicators that your stress level is getting out of control include feeling unusually irritable and exhausted much of the time. When caregivers are tired, they are often unable to sleep soundly, become forgetful and lose pleasure in daily activities. The more hours you spend as a caregiver increases the likelihood of this happening.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, finding a support network is essential to managing caregiver stress. You mentioned that your mother attended church. If she hasn’t been there recently, people may not realize she needs help. Call the minister or the church office and ask them for assistance. Even if someone can stay with your mother a few hours or prepare a meal, it will lessen your burden.

Remember that your friends can be called on to help. Even if most of them are working full-time, many will be pleased to stop by the grocery store, prepare a quick meal or run errands. Do not allow yourself to get into a self-destructive pattern where you insist on doing everything.

It is important for you to take care of your own health. Many people neglect themselves when caring for a loved one. If your doctor prescribes an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety medication, take it. Attempting to be super-woman will eventually cause you more troubles than rewards.

Q. I have so many friends who are dying or moving that I have become very depressed. My children are worried about me since I’ve had some heart problems. They want me to move close to them, but I don’t want to. Should I approach my doctor about medication? I never wanted to be dependent on a drug.

A. According to a recent article in the New York Times, about 1 to 5 percent of elderly people suffer from depression. This rate increases dramatically if people have an underlying medical condition such as you do.

One of the major reasons for depression in the elderly is death of friends and loss of loved ones. People, who have been your support system for years are suddenly not there. It is a normal reaction to feel that your world is shrinking.

You may also be feeling depressed by the pressure your children are placing on you to move. Remember, as long as you are healthy and financially stable, the decision to move or stay in your community is entirely yours.

According to, there are many medications that can also worsen depression. Some of these are blood pressure medications, beta blockers, heart drugs containing reserpine and high-cholesterol drugs. If you have recently started a new medication, speak with your doctor about side effects.

Since you do not want to take an anti-depressant, try some other positive ways to feel better. Begin an exercise class for seniors; connect with others through clubs, church or other activities; get enough sleep; avoid overconsumption of alcohol; volunteer your time; or learn a new skill. Many seniors join book clubs or learn to play bridge.

If you try these activities and you are still depressed, speak with your doctor about medication and schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. Talking to someone can often do wonders to alleviate depression.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.