By Dr. Marion Somers, Ph. D., Ask Dr. Marion

QUESTION: I've been helping my 72 year-old father with many challenges ever since he started to show signs of aging a few years ago. I don't consider myself a caregiver, but I'm totally worn out. How do I know if I'm a caregiver? Faith in Washington, 48

ANSWER: I've met many people who have been providing care for years without realizing they are actually a caregiver. What often occurs is that the caregiving challenge slowly increases over time until one day you realize, "Wow, I'm devoting all of my energy toward caregiving, and I need help." If you are focusing any of your thoughts, energies, and talents on the wellbeing and condition of an elder loved one in need, you are a caregiver.

You're only doing what you think you should do, but you might not realize it's taking a heavy toll on you. You're so focused outwardly that you don't look inward to see that you're becoming emotionally, physically, and spiritually deprived. The needs of your elder loved one keep increasing while your energy is waning. Many caregivers deal with the added stress and pressure by smoking, drinking, gaining/losing weight, sleeping less/more. It's quite obvious when the personal patterns change in an unhealthy direction, and many caregivers fray at the edges. Jobs are affected, and caregiving can take a dramatic toll on family life, too.

So admit that you're a caregiver and take care of yourself starting today. The danger in not realizing you're a caregiver is not paying enough attention to your own needs. You're too busy being a caregiver to take care of yourself. I've seen many caregivers wither under the stain of the role, and some actually pass away before their elder loved one. As loving and altruistic as caregiving may be, if you don't heed my advice, you could be in trouble sooner rather than later. So take a step back, assess your situation, and directly admit that you need help. Know your limitations and save energy for yourself. I highly recommend reaching out to other relatives and friends for support.

©2006 Elder Health Resources of America, Inc.