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Taking care of the carers


Taking care of the carers

Caring for a loved one with dementia is a massive responsibility, and although it can be rewarding, it can also take a major toll on the mental and physical health of the carer, writes KATHRYN SMITH.

Statistics show that 1 in 10 people over 65 years have dementia, which ranks the disease as the third leading cause of national disability burden.

Carers are often strapped aboard a rollercoaster of emotions, experiencing an array of feelings from love and tenderness to guilt, despair, anger and intense worry.

The weight of responsibility gets heavier for the carer as the patients lose their independence and the journey often brings great sadness to those who bear witness.

During this journey, it is of utmost importance that carers ensure they are prioritising their own physical, mental and emotional health.

Dementia is terribly sad for friends and relatives to see, as the degenerative state of the disease closes all windows of hope.

As humans we naturally seek out positives as we grapple at snippets of the sufferer’s former self.

When it comes to degenerative disease, seeing the positive rather than weighing in on the negatives, is crucial to emotional health.

Children are often wondrous in these situations, taking a fresh and unique perspective. Rather than shy them away from the person it can be helpful to encourage their visits and allow them to understand what is transpiring.

Communication is key when it comes to expressing feelings in all situations but particularly when in caring for someone with dementia.

Denying feelings, even if they are ones of anger, guilt or exasperation, will not be helpful in the long run. Confiding in a friend or a professional about how you are feeling, will not end in judgement.

This is a great life challenge and practising self-compassion is vital to your mental health.

Cry, talk to a friend or a professional, write a journal; just let the feelings out. They cannot heal when they are trapped inside.

Taking time out from carer duties to enjoy something you love is one way to be kind to yourself. Exercise and meditation also are effective outlets, helping you to relax and improve mood, sleep and cognitive function.

Learn to find some joy in a time that may not seem like your happiest and remember, the person may not remember who you are, but you can still honour and remember who they are.

 Kathryn Smith is a clinical psychologist. Visit


In 2015, there were 2.8 million unpaid carers in Australia, the majority of them women.

Whether caring for a parent with dementia, a partner with Alzheimer’s, a sibling or child with a brain injury, or a friend who has suffered a stroke, it’s generally not a role freely chosen.

Most carers had a different lifestyle before they became carers and have seen all, or most, of that old life vanish.

They might have had to stop work, interrupt their education, drop out of some parts of their social life, abandon hobbies, interests and plans for the future – all of which means they have experienced significant losses.

This in itself can lead to grief, although it is not always recognised as such. Caring is intensely demanding and stressful, and carers tend to find they have little or no time for self-care.
Over time, it is not unusual for a carer to find themselves becoming exhausted, empty, resentful, angry, lonely and depressed. They wonder how long they can go on yet push themselves to continue.

Carer fatigue is normal.

Take the advice that airlines give passengers: “Fit your own oxygen mask first before you try to help others”. If you don’t, both of you will go down. Take care of the carer.

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