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Therapy for caregivers: How you can benefit and ways to get started

Discover the benefits of therapy for caregivers, learn how to navigate the challenges of juggling multiple roles and find time to take care of yourself.

Therapy for caregivers: How you can benefit and ways to get started

Caregiving is like having multiple high-demand, high-skill jobs at once. The workday might begin as a nurse, then transition to a financial asset manager by lunch, then end as an emotional support counselor late into the night. Throw in some house cleaning chores on the side, plus a work week that often extends past traditional work hours, and caregivers are often poised to have very little time for themselves.

Anton Scherbakov, a clinical psychologist and founder of ThinkPsych, adds, “Some of the most common challenges that I see caregivers face are isolation, frustration and depression. Others in your life may not appreciate just how much effort and energy it can require to care for an older adult.” 

A stronger alternative: seeking therapy and speaking with a licensed professional trained to understand, and act on, the unique challenges that caregivers face. Here are main benefits associated with going to therapy as a caregiver, plus, ways to make it work with an extremely tight schedule. 

“Some of the most common challenges that I see caregivers face are isolation, frustration and depression. Others in your life may not appreciate just how much effort and energy it can require to care for an older adult.” 

— Anton Scherbakov, clinical psychologist

Benefits of therapy for caregivers

1. Your frustrations will be validated

First (and possibly most important), Scherbakov says that therapy can provide caregivers with near-instant validation. He notes that it’s common for caregivers to question their frustrations, due to the very personal nature of their jobs. So to hear a licensed professional explain that it’s more than OK to feel anger, resentment and any other host of negative emotions can make a world of difference. 

Amy Cameron O’Rourke, a professional caregiver and author of “The Fragile Years,” says that therapists can also help offset immediate guilt for seeking counseling. “Self-neglect is very common for caregivers, and taking time for yourself can feel very wrong. The guilt is hard to bear,” she notes. “Hearing from a professional that [therapy] will help you in the long-term is helpful.” 

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2. It can lead to more quality time with the person you’re caring for 

Oftentimes, O’Rourke says that caregivers are often caring for aging parents or relatives — which tends to come saddled with decades’ worth of complex, sometimes strained relationships. This complexity can exacerbate any frustrations that arise out of caring for them. 

Caregivers who are emotionally supported are less apt to react negatively to what a parent is doing, like repeating the same thing over and over or asking for help with the remote when you’ve already shown them, she explains. “If you are drained and fatigued, you don’t always have the reserve to behave,” says O’Rourke.  

She witnessed therapy helping this struggle firsthand when she worked with a caregiver son who was caring for his parents. The man felt as though his parents were not physically or verbally affectionate with him as a child, so when it was his time to care for them physically and mentally, he felt some resentment. 

“He was dreading caring for them on a daily basis,” explains O’Rourke. “He went to therapy for a few months, based on my strong recommendation, and he reported back to me about the positive insight he gained.”

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Many mental health professionals are medical doctors themselves or are connected to a web of other medical professionals that can help treat and prevent stress-related ailments associated with caregiving, says O’Rourke.

“Stress-related ailments include body aches, lethargy and even hospitalizations,” she says, pointing out that therapists can direct caregivers to the right medical and social support systems to prevent these from occurring. 

Mayo Clinic warns to look for these signs of caregiver stress, many of which a therapist can help you keep an eye on:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried.
  • Feeling tired often.
  • Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep.
  • Gaining or losing weight.
  • Becoming easily irritated or angry.
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Feeling sad.
  • Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems.
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications.

“Therapy can help caregivers create more balance in their lives. It’s important that caregivers do things that are enjoyable and simulating outside of their job.” 

— Renee Solomon, clinical psychologist

4. You’ll learn to restructure your time

Therapy can be used to dissect complex emotions, but it can also be used to help better manage your time, says Renee Solomon, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Forward Recovery

“Therapy can help caregivers create more balance in their lives,” she explains. “It’s important that caregivers do things that are enjoyable and simulating outside of their job.” 

O’Rourke can attest to this benefit personally. “I went to a counselor for some relief and learned I was way out of balance in doing things for myself; things I enjoyed,” she says. “And, it took over a month for me to structure my time so that I actually followed through on the activities I said I would do.”

5. You can refine your communication skills 

One major component to therapy, particularly for caregivers, is understanding how to utilize your voice. “Therapy is where we learn and practice the skills we need to get healthy,” notes Anthony Jeider, a psychiatrist with Nevada Mental Health. “Self-advocacy, setting and enforcing boundaries, asking for help, controlling an emotional or behavioral response; these are skills. Some are naturally good at them, others need practice. Therapy is that practice.”

So whether it’s more strongly communicating your personal boundaries with an aging parent or setting limits on your time as a caregiver, therapy can help you build, and communicate, this argument in a healthy, effective way. 

How find a therapist as a caregiver 

1. If you have insurance, browse in-network providers

“The most important thing is to look for a therapist that you feel comfortable with,” says Scherbakov. “Try to be open-minded and meet with a few clinicians before you decide who is the best fit to help you.” (Note: “Meeting” can include quick telephone calls or email exchanges.)

Some credential-related information to keep an eye out for when searching, says Scherbakov:

  • Ensure the therapist is licensed to practice in the state you live in.
  • Look for titles such as licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counsel (LPC) or licensed psychologist (PsyD or PhD).
  • Oftentimes, therapists will have specialities listed on their website. This will often include tags for topic-specific counseling for things like stress, depression, anxiety, relationship issues and more. 

That said, Solomon notes that credentials aren’t everything. “I always recommend that people talk to two or three people, and see if there is a connection,” she says. “If someone does not feel comfortable with the therapist, it is important to not continue the relationship as this will prevent the patient from being honest and feeling safe. Getting referrals from a trusted friend or [fellow caregiver] can also help.” 

2. If you don’t have insurance coverage, consider these methods 

Scherbakov says that many therapist providers offer “sliding scale” fees for sessions, which is essentially payment based on a person’s income or other factors. A few other tips:

  • Try a therapist training program at a local university. According to Scherbakov, this means sessions will be carried out by an individual who might not have the credentials listed above yet — but who is most certainly overseen by a person who does. “They often provide excellent care at a reduced cost,” he adds. Try Googling psychology programs at your local university or call them to find out. 
  • If you’re a federal employee, try Workplace Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). This government benefit, which is available to federal employees, is available year-round 24/7 and provides assessment, short-term counseling, consultation and coaching services. “There are a lot more resources in the workplace for help with aging parents,” O’Rourke says. 

3. If you can’t afford clinical therapy, support groups can help

The simple act of speaking with someone who understands what you’re going through as a caregiver can be enough to get by, says O’Rourke. “If you belong to a religious organization, ask another member to visit just so you could talk to someone,” she suggests. “You can also join a [caregiver] support group.” 

Facebook tends to have many unofficial support groups (just try searching for caregiver support groups in your area), while the Alzheimer’s Association and Eldercare Locator offer tools for finding nearby support groups. 

That said, says O’Rourke, there are certain signs that it really would be best to prioritize therapy. “Ask yourself if you’ve ever been regretful about how you spoke or handled a situation with your family member,” she advises. “Did you lash out, get angry or take your frustration out on them? If this has happened, making time for therapy might be the best option.”