The Gift of Therapy: A Caregiver's Lifeline
Therapy can hold you up when you are down and strengthen your resilience when you need it most
I used to think I was Super Woman until my husband was diagnosed with dementia. Then my fear of the unknown made me pretend I was made of iron. It wasn't working. I was a wreck. No matter how often I heard, "take care of yourself," which I thought I was doing, my mental health suffered.
I was overstressed and overwhelmed. I was consumed with thoughts I couldn't share in a support group with friends, family or strangers. I needed help and found it by giving myself the gift of therapy. I'm not a unique case.
The World Journal of Psychiatry (2022) cites that the prevalence of depression among caregivers of patients with dementia is higher than in the general population. A report from the Family Caregiver Alliance found that 40%-70% of caregivers have symptoms of depression.
Caring 24/7 for a loved one can be debilitating, especially one with dementia.
The report states that there are serious consequences when caregivers neglect their own needs. Yet, the American Psychological Association reports that older adults, many of them caregivers, receive less counseling or therapy than any other age group — 5.7% (mostly women).
So why aren't older adults seeking psychotherapy? Is it seen as a sign of weakness? Do they believe they are too old for it? Is there a fear of judgment? Too invasive? Too late? Too expensive? Are primary doctors prescribing antidepressants rather than talk therapy?
An individual doesn't have to receive a clinical diagnosis of depression to benefit from working with a skilled professional.
The National Institute on Aging confirms that the above could be true. An individual doesn't have to receive a clinical diagnosis of depression to benefit from working with a skilled professional. Caring 24/7 for a loved one can be debilitating, especially one with dementia, when they are there but not really there.
Caregiver isolation is noted in studies by the National Institute of Health, revealing that loss of social connections, either because others choose to stay away or the caregiver is too exhausted to engage, leaves the caregiver feeling isolated and alone. There is no one just to listen.
Once I did the work needed to find the right professional, I was nurtured for five years. Every week, I sat on the therapy couch and opened my heart. Just knowing that someone was listening and not judging was huge. More importantly, I could sort out what was important vs. urgent, problem solve, and clarify my random thoughts about my new role as a care partner and about my family interactions at that time.
The American Psychological Association reports that psychological interventions for older adults are not the same as for younger patients. It requires more screening and more attention to the special challenges of later life. It's more than a recommendation from a friend; it is a very personal choice.
Therapists are focused on the goals you set for yourself. Yet, it took four failed therapy attempts before I realized I wasn't being honest.
Moreover, mental health professionals recommend you consider these questions before you dig in to refine your search and have a better chance of finding a practitioner:
- How important is gender, age, religious affiliation or race? While not a sign of expertise, your comfort level may be enhanced with a preference enabling you to be vulnerable – a necessity to benefit from therapy. You want to feel like they will understand you as a unique individual.
- What are you hoping to get from therapy? This is one of the first questions a clinician will ask you. Therapists are focused on the goals you set for yourself. Yet, it took four failed therapy attempts before I realized I wasn't being honest. Once I clarified my real goal, I found a skilled licensed psychologist who was able to help me. Of course, I wanted to support my husband with respect and dignity, but I also wanted to keep my sense of self so I would be alive.
- Do you want someone who is an expert or a specialist? While not impossible, this can be a challenge knowing that there aren't many therapists who go into geriatrics. However, you can find individuals who understand life-changing situations. My therapist was experienced with progressive diseases. Her work with brain injury cases helped me figure out how to work with my husband's cognitive decline, even as it worsened. All along, she was preparing me for the end without knowing it. My sister found a cancer coach through the hospital who helped her navigate systems while providing empathy and emotional support. A friend saw someone who understood the grief associated with the continual loss when caregiving for her husband with an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
- How important are cost, availability and distance? I started my search with criteria around therapy logistics and quickly learned that finding a knowledgeable person was the most critical factor. With Medicare reimbursements and in-network providers, it can be affordable. Online options can also be highly effective.
Once you know what you are looking for, good places to search are Psychology Today's online tool and the American Psychological Association locator. Your primary doctor, neurologist or private health insurer may have referrals. Medical schools may also be a resource.
Lastly, determined to find the right person, I spent a day searching the Psychology Today site and identified three professionals I wanted to learn more about. I read their websites, looking for words and tones that felt supportive and gave me confidence that I could benefit from time with them.
One stood out. After an initial conversation, we both agreed we could work together. Over time I unwrapped the gift of therapy. Indeed, therapy can hold you up when you are down, feed and nurture you when you are fragile, and strengthen your resilience when you need it most. And the best part is that it is an hour focused solely on YOU!