Caregivers can neglect themselves for sickly kids

Imagine carrying a heavy load on your back without a moment of rest.

That is how stressful long-term caregiving can be, said Mrs Sara Tan, the executive director of Hougang Sheng Hong Family Service Centre.

"It is very possible for the caregiver to sink into depression or develop other psychiatric condition if the caregiver has little respite from other sources of support, such as other family members or friends, community service providers or avenues to draw strength from," she said.

Without avenues to "recharge their energy", caregivers will burn out sooner or later, she added.

Sometimes, parents may be so focused on caring for their sickly children that they neglect their own health.

Some may even feel guilty for taking a breather, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness.

"They often develop conditions like depression or anxiety disorder. But as they think feeling that way is part and parcel of caregiving, the psychiatric conditions go undetected," he said.

Dr Thong Jiunn Yew, a psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Clinic, agreed.

"Some of the parents who come to us do not mind looking after their sickly children, but worry about who is going to take care of their children after they die," he added.

If left to fester, these medical conditions may lead to impaired judgment.

Said Mrs Tan: "While I believe that no parents in their logical mind will want to harm their children, it is not uncommon for us to come across parents who do 'mistreat' their children...

"Some may lose hope in the child's future and may perceive their act (of killing the child) as ending the child's suffering."

The only way to cope is to seek help from counsellors and doctors, said all three experts.

Mrs Tan added that parents also need to be told that they deserve a break and must know where they can turn to for respite.

All three experts emphasised the importance of family members in detecting caregiver stress and making sure that they seek help.

But Dr Lim pointed out a loophole that lets certain patients fall through the cracks.

Under the law, the police can arrest anyone believed to be of unsound mind and who is potentially dangerous to himself or other people.

But this applies only when harm has been done. It does not take care of patients who have a case history and could suffer a relapse, Dr Lim said.

He suggested having a community treatment order, which gives doctors the authority to put patients on a mandatory treatment plan.

If the patient fails to comply, then he may be admitted to the hospital as a formal patient.

This article was first published on Sep 25, 2014.
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