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It’s no secret that Canada’s population is aging. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, almost one million people will be diagnosed with dementia in the next 15 years. Along with this will come a growing demand for caregivers to help those with dementia perform their daily tasks, and this responsibly often falls on family and friends.

When caregivers like family and friends are required to provide high levels of care without formal training or experience, they often end up experiencing mental, emotional or physical health issues. In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association reports that nearly eight in 10 caregivers experience difficulties as a result of caring for those with long-term health problems.

But to effectively care for others, caregivers must also prioritize their own health.

“The best thing we always say is, like on an airplane, the stewardess will say, ‘You need to put on your own air mask before you put on others’,” says Dawn Smale, a social worker at McCormick Dementia Services in London, Ont.

“It’s kind of the same concept. Every caregiver gets in that position where they think, ‘I need to take care of their loved one’ and they put their loved one first before they put themselves first. And if they’re not careful, they do have caregiver burnout,” Smale says.

Those dealing with caregiver burden typically experience a variety of symptoms, including: denial, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, sleeplessness, irritability and other ongoing physical health problems. Caregiver burden can also lead to caregiver burnout, where a caregiver experiences extreme mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, causing them to become unconcerned or have a negative attitude.

“More often than not, people will burn out,” says Smale.

There are many factors that influence the level of burden experienced by caregivers. In a 2015 study, CY Chiao, HS Wu and CY Hsiao found that burden levels are often directly linked with the amount of care that is needed. Caregivers for those who require higher levels of care will often experience high levels of burden, whereas those caring for individuals who are more independent will likely experience less burden.

A study by Silvia Sörensen and Yeates Conwell additionally discovered that women, spouses and those in lower socio-economic groups tend to be more vulnerable to caregiver burden. The study also reported that ethnic minority caregivers experience more physical health problems, while white caregivers experience more mental health problems.

While caregivers often have little control over the stresses that come with caregiving, there are steps they can take to reduce caregiver burden.

One of these steps includes participation in support services, which has been proven to be a reliable method of decreasing burden, according to a study by CO Bailes, CM Kelley and NM Parker.

“It really is that village mentality,” Smale says. “It takes a village to raise a child.  It’s the same concept when you’re dealing with a caregiver. They need that extra support in order to make it through and be able to do what they need to do and still be able to have some time for themselves and have a balance.”

Support services like counselling, education programs and support groups often teach caregivers effective coping strategies, which are a large determinant in caregiver burden levels. HM Chen et al. discovered that caregivers who are able to employ positive coping strategies, like making active efforts to manage stressful situations, will often experience lower levels of burden compared to those who employ negative coping strategies.

Support groups also help participants relate to and help one another through their shared experiences as caregivers.

“They’re building friendships with people that have similar issues,” says Joanne Hipwell, the day program manager at McCormick Dementia Services. “I think that support is very, very important. It’s nice to hear that you’re not the only person.”

“I have heard some of the spouses say without their group they don’t think they’d cope as well,” Smale says. “They enjoy coming because when they leave, they’re more lighthearted or they feel like they’ve left a little bit of what’s really bothering them or what they’re struggling with in the group when they walk out.”

Caregivers can also take advantage of respite care, in which patients are temporarily under the care of formal caregivers like nurses, which allows informal caregivers to have some time away from their caregiving duties so they can complete their daily tasks or simply have some time alone.

In London, caregivers can find support through organizations like McCormick Dementia Services, which provides services and programs for dementia patients and their families. McCormick offers free telephone consultation, counselling, educational programs and support groups to dementia caregivers, regardless of whether the person they’re caring for is enrolled in their programs. McCormick also offers respite through their day program and their weekend overnight respite care.

“The most rewarding thing for me is to be able to help a caregiver,” Smale says. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, it can be something so small as ‘Have you tried looking at it from this perspective?’ or just how you reword something can be a success.”

For more information on McCormick Care and their support services, visit their website or call (519)439-9336.

Julia Ritchie is a student in the Master of Media in Journalism Communication program at Western University.