Did you know that 1 in every 4 Americans is providing unpaid care for a friend or family member who is disabled, aged, or ill? These people, called informal family caregivers, do our country a great service and provide an estimated $306 billion of free care each year, saving our Medicare and Medicaid systems tremendously. They are motivated out of love, duty, and responsibility, but the stress can leave them feeling isolated, trapped, and even depressed if they don’t learn how to manage their responsibilities. “Caregiver Burnout” is a significant issue many caregivers struggle with (you can learn more about its symptoms here and here). We need to combat this by caring for the caregiver!
7 Tips for Caregivers
“Caregivers tell me they want to keep their loved ones at home. What caregivers do to make that happen is often heroic and always inspirational. We owe them so much.” –Kathy Greenlee, US Assistant Secretary for Aging.
1. Educate Yourself.
Learn more about who you are as a caregiver and what the person you’re providing care for needs. According to the National Family Caregivers Association, self-identified caregivers are more proactive about seeking resources to assist their care recipient and have increased confidence when talking to healthcare professionals about their loved one’s care. Learn about the resources available to help you and the technologies available to make your role easier. For instance, did you know that the Family & Medical Leave Act allows you to take up to 12 weeks off (unpaid) for care of an immediate family member? To learn more about caregiving, your role, and the resources available to help you, visit the Family Caregivers Alliance, the National Family Caregivers Association, and the National Family Caregivers Support Program.
2. Speak Out.
Don’t silently suffer. Talk to a professional about your caregiving duties and the physical, emotional, and psychological stress you experience. Be honest about what you’re going through and the symptoms you experience. Likewise, don’t be afraid to ask questions on behalf of the one you’re providing care for. It’s also important to openly discuss hard topics like death, independence, driving, funeral plans, and more. Pre-planning helps deal with these difficult issues outside the heat of the moment. Engage the care recipient if his/her cognitive reasoning is still sound and learn their wishes. Bring your family into the fold and share what’s happening and what you need from them.
Here are some great tips on dealing with:
- talking to the physician
- involving and educating your family on caring issues
- things to and not to do when talking to aging parents
- end of life preparation
- impaired driving
3. Seek Respite.
Get some you time. Have you ever been on a commercial airplane before? If so, you’ve heard the instructions to put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. Same is true in caregiving. You must take care of yourself so you can take care of another. And part of that is carving out time where you are relieved from your caregiving responsibilities. Spend time with your friends, go on a church retreat, walk around the block, meditate. Whatever it is, separate yourself physical and mentally from your duties of providing care. And remember, this is not a luxury, this a vital component of preventing caregiver burnout. There is nothing to be guilty or ashamed of. If you don’t have a family member or friend who can provide respite care, call your local Office on Aging. Our local agency offers services through Project LIVE and the Senior Companion Program. (I’m on the advisory council for the Senior Companion Program and can attest to the caring and quality individuals that volunteer to help out. Wonderful resource.)
4. Build a Support Team.
Engage family members and friends to share the responsibilities of caregiving. If they offer to help, accept it. Tell them specifically how they can help and what they can do. Supplement their help with paid services from a qualified agency if needed. Personal Support Service Agencies (PSSAs) can provide non-medical care for your loved ones. Tennessee does a great job protecting seniors by mandating that PSSAs are licensed and uphold standards like background checks and training in order to offer services to Tennessee recipients.
5. Connect with Other Caregivers.
Join a support group or check out forums online that connect people across the country that share your experience. To share your experience and learn about others is the best way to help prevent you from feeling isolated. You are not alone. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own. You can join Family Caregiver Community to connect with other caregivers and learn valuable insight on caregiving matters. Also consider visiting forums and blogs such as The Caregivers Voice, San Diego Caregiver’s Blog, MS Caregivers Blog, and more provide great insight to the issues caregivers face on a daily basis. *If you have any additional blogs you suggest, e-mail us at advocate(at)lambertshc.com.
Each city will have its own support systems in place, but you can ask your local physician office, hospital, or Office on Aging for a list of various caregiver and bereavement support groups. I also like this site as a helpful tool to locate local support groups and more in your city.
6. Stay Healthy.
Eat healthy meals, get exercise, learn how to lift properly, and get enough sleep. All of that pulling, stretching, and lifting can take a toll on your back and body. Do strength training and eat a variety of vegetables to build strength. Another perk of eating right and exercising? Endorphins. These guys will make your body physically and mentally strong and ready for the day ahead. See our earlier Homecare Advocate Nutrition post for more information on healthy meals you can incorporate into your diet. Keep in mind that our bodies rebuild themselves while we’re asleep, so make it a priority to get your standard 6-8 hours of sleep each night. Getting rest will keep you alert when it counts and minimize your risk of making mistakes with medication and more.
7. Allow Grieving and Healing.
This is undoubtedly a difficult but necessary part of caregiving: letting go. Caregivers are dealing with the loss of a loved one as well as the total change in their own lives as they adjust to life after caregiving. Many caregivers feel torn over their conflicting thoughts of guilt and grief, struggling between “I should’ve…”, “had I only…” and, the quiet relief of the stressful caregiving finally coming to an end. Accept all of these thoughts and feelings. Allow yourself to grieve. Allow yourself to be in this moment but grant yourself permission to grow beyond it. Depression after your caregiving role ends is common, and the healing process takes time. If needed, join a support group that focus on bereavement and help teach how to start life once more after death. Life after death is not a linear path, but little by little, day by day, you will learn how to create a life of purpose and meaning. You will rediscover your identity outside of your former caregiving role, and you will see what beauty lies ahead.
“What we often do not realize is that at the end of human life exists a new beginning, not just for our loved ones but for us as well.”–Caregiver Dorothy Womack.