PTSD and Caregiving

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Last week my ninety-two year-old father fell twice and injured his back. He was placed in the hospital, where doctors ran a series of tests that revealed TIAs and a back fracture. The sad truth is that my father will continue to have TIAs and fall and the next call will be more ominous.

As I raced across state to help make decisions regarding my father’s care, I discovered my symptoms of PTSD from years of caregiving were being retriggered: numbness,  insomnia, anxiety, dread, irritability, and depression.

My husband and I cared for his father with Parkinson’s disease and multiple health issues in our home for five years until just months before his death with COPD in a VA facility. We also cared for my mother with Alzheimer’s in our home and my dad for an additional five years. Those years took an enormous toll.

Unfortunately, little formal research has been done on the effects of PTSD on caregivers. But Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers” (The Guilford Press, 2006), often sees caregivers who struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories months and even years after a loved one has died.

The fact that caregiving can take a psychological toll on an individual is no secret. A 2009 study by the National Institutes of Health found that the chronic stress a caregiver can be under – whether from the duration and type of care he or she is providing to a loved one or from dealing with finances and family tensions – can cause significant psychological distress, impaired health habits, psychiatric illness and physical illness.

My husband and I struggled with the tension of making “right” end-of-life decisions for parents who could not talk. It was our responsibility to know when they were in pain, when they were thirsty, when they needed more medication or less, and to protect them. We lived in a constant state of vigilance and concern that our decisions could physically, emotionally, and mentally harm our parent if we were not appropriately informed caregivers and not able to discern their needs.

We lived for ten years in a state of overwhelming stress.

But we were wise enough to put ourselves in counseling, which helped save our marriage and our sanity. But counseling is often not enough. Caregivers may also need to consider trauma treatment, especially if their caregiving experiences are linked to prior trauma experiences in their lives.

If you are a caregiver, be alert to symptoms of PTSD and consider the possibility that you may need treatment.

To receive a free eBook I’ve co-written with colleague Wanda Sanchez on post-traumatic stress disorder, go to PTSDPerspectives.org and click on “The Truth about Trauma.” This eBook provides an overview of PTSD, it’s symptoms, causes, treatments, what people with PTSD feel like, and how friends and family can help.

6 thoughts on “PTSD and Caregiving

  1. I’m sorry you’re having to go through this. Thank you for offering this very interesting insight into the plight of caregivers…I was musing last night on how caregiving for my severely depressed husband for the last 20 years has affected me. Your words give me comfort by telling me I’m not alone. -Amy

    • My father-in-law, who was a retired missionary, also suffered from a lifetime of depression but couldn’t talk about it. He cut his father down from the barn rafters where he’d hung himself when Norman was just eleven. The trauma followed him his entire life, but he couldn’t talk about it. As a caregiver, I learned that we must care for the whole person, including the wounded child trapped inside our loved one. Depression is so very insidious. And so difficult to talk about for those who suffer.

  2. Shelly, I cried all the way through this post. I’m so sorry about your dad. You’re such a loving daughter to care for your family the way you do.

    Caregiving is hard and holy work. I pray for God’s grace to wrap around you as you manage the emotional roller coaster of caring for your dad.

    As you know, having just lost my mom to brain cancer in January, I’m battling intense periods of PTSD symptoms. From her diagnosis to her death, each phase comes rushing back in flashes.

    God is faithful to sustain us as we usher our loves ones into His arms. My heart rests knowing my mom is with him.

    Blessings to you for all you do to help others.

    Lori

    • Thank you so much, Lori. You’ve been through a tough time, and caregiving loss does trigger other PTSD symptoms. It’s such a comfort to know our mothers are together in heaven. Hugs to you, friend.

  3. It’s wonderful that you are highlighting another cause of PTSD there. I must admit I’d never considered caregiving as potentially traumatic but I’m really glad I read your post, I consider myself better informed. With PTSD so prevalent it’s frightening how silent the greater comunity/society is about how wide-reaching it is, so well done for stepping out and publicly airing yours.

    • Physicians and professional caregivers are particularly at risk, I believe. I would encourage them to be aware of the risks and to be informed. Again, thank you for sharing.

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