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.