When Caregivers Worry About Their Own Mental Health

Mature man is visiting his old father , standing in front of senior residence

Caring for an adult who cannot care for himself or herself is rough work—rewarding, because we value care for our loved ones, but at times physically and mentally draining. Sometimes caregivers find themselves at wit's end; sometimes, in despair; sometimes, angry; and sometimes, depressed.

Where can family caregivers get the support needed to maintain their own mental health and continue providing good care?

Enter the King County Caregiver Support Network—nine agencies that receive state and federal family caregiver support funds, administered by Aging and Disability Services (the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County), to help support unpaid caregivers of adults 18 and older.

Their services make a difference. Here are a few examples:

Portrait of sad lonely pensive old senior woman

"Tina cares for Stanley, her husband of 56 years. Stanley, a retired shoe repairman, was once voted community man of the year in his small town. Now he lives with congestive heart failure and Alzheimer's. Tina grieves the loss of her partner and friend, as there is now no reciprocity in their married life. Stanley doesn't recognize the meaning of her birthday or of Valentine's Day, or even when she gets sick with a bad cold. "The tenderness is gone," said Tina, choking up. "I miss him and sometimes I get mad. Is that normal?" A Jewish Family Service caregiver specialist told her that these feelings make sense. Many caregivers experience a multitude of emotions and may feel shy or guilty expressing themselves. Tina said, "My daughters think I don't take care of myself and they think I am depressed. I feel that way but I hate to even call it that. Depression is something I don't want to admit." Through the caregiver support program, Tina has felt supported, validated, and relieved to know she is not alone. She reports feeling more comfortable opening up. Tina is learning how to cope with her grief and depression as a result of caregiver counseling."

Middle aged man looking through his fingers into the camera; a glimpse of sadness in his eyes.

"Joe, a 68-year-old resident of south King County, took care of his father Tom, who needed significant assistance with activities of daily living. At times, Joe felt overwhelmed by this work. The caregiver support program helped Joe get regular in-home respite assistance. Joe said the twice weekly visits and personal care and housework assistance was "a lifesaver." Finances were very tight as Joe's caregiving responsibilities kept him from working. He started to apply for long-term care assistance for his father, but was overwhelmed by the process because his father's paperwork was not in good order. Joe suffered from depression. As a veteran, he was referred to the PEARLS for Veterans program where case manager Paul Snow helped him cope with his issues, including alcohol abuse. Joe was also referred to the Evergreen Care Network for ongoing counseling. Joe also drew emotional support from the family caregiver support program caregiver coordinator at Aging and Disability Services. After his father's death, Joe moved closer to other family members in another state. Before he left, he expressed his gratitude for the help and support he received from the family caregiver support program during a very difficult time in his life."

"Janet and John's world turned upside down when John suffered a debilitating stroke with left side paralysis. Janet tried to maintain a positive outlook for the sake of her husband of 30 years, but became overwhelmed with sadness over his physical limitations and, with no family nearby, her responsibilities as John's primary caregiver. A Harborview social worker referred Janet to the family caregiver support program. Caregiver counseling helped Janet "sort through things and not feel so weighed down and isolated." Fortunately, the stroke did not affect John's cognitive functioning, and both were able to take advantage of PEARLS depression counseling, focused on goal-setting. Janet connected with other caregivers at an annual conference. She realized she wasn't alone, and felt supported in her day-to-day challenges. Janet currently receives respite care each week. Now she attends water aerobics, runs errands, visits neighbors, and schedules appointments. Janet also connected with the Veterans Administration. Services include a motorized wheelchair for John and regular contact with a VA social worker. With ongoing physical therapy, John is making progress—his "PT homework" is done on bars installed in their home. Janet's mental health has improved. She has a sense of well-being. "Your support kept me moving in the right direction," Janet said. "I don't feel as down—as stuck—anymore. And that is a blessing!"  

The network offers free consultations, which include a screening/assessment of the challenges, stresses and satisfactions the caregiver has experienced. Supports and services are tailored to each caregiver’s unique needs.

Studies tell us that stress is the number one challenge for most caregivers, and information is often their number one need. Many caregivers are unaware of supportive services, how to find them, or why it is important to use them.

If you are a caregiver, or you know someone who is, tell them about the King County Caregiver Support Network. For more information, visit www.kccaregiver.org.

Aging and Disability Services (ADS) planner Irene Stewart compiled this article, with help from ADS caregiver services coordinators Carole Bourree and Kristine Broome, and Homecare Associates (Jewish Family Service) client care supervisor Lisa Bakke. The King County Caregiver Support Network is funded by the Washington State DSHS Aging and Long-Term Support Administration. For more information, click here.

King County Caregiver Support Network

The King County Caregiver Support Network provides services, referrals, and information that help unpaid caregivers age 18 and up reduce stress. Contact any one of the following agencies and ask to speak with a caregiver specialist:

Senior Services 206-448-3110

Alzheimer’s Association 206-363-5500

Chinese Information & Service Center 206-624-5633

Evergreen Care Network 425-899-3200

Jewish Family Service 206-861-8790

Kin On Community Care Network 206-652-2330, ext. 15 or 16

Neighborhood House 206-461-4522

Northshore Senior Center 425-286-1035

For immediate needs, contact:

Crisis Clinic/King County 2-1-1 206-436-2975