An estimated 52 million Americans serve as caregivers for family members or loved ones, taking care of parents, spouses, or children with special medical needs. Looking practically at the demands of caregiving is important, as the role is physically and emotionally challenging.
Fortunately, many services are available to help.
A Full-Time Job
A caregiver is anyone who provides assistance to someone who is incapacitated and needs care and support. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that families provide half of the care to those who need it.
The need for caregivers may increase in the future, as the baby boomers age and economic pressures limit funds. Whether it is due to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, a stroke, muscular dystrophy, or another condition, it brings a loved one or friend into a new, undefined role.
Many caregivers are unpaid and help on a full-time basis. An estimated 20 percent provide 40 hours of care a week, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, Most caregivers also work outside the home, and up to 75 percent of them are women.
Tasks that a caregiver may do include cooking and shopping for food, paying bills, and helping another person to eat and perform activities of daily living, including dressing, washing, and managing medications. They also provide emotional support.
At its best, caregiving is rewarding and satisfying. At its worst, it is stressful and possibly hazardous to one’s health. The role can expand gradually, causing sleep deprivation, exhaustion, self-neglect, burnout, social isolation, back and shoulder strains, or other problems.
The burden on cargivers is immense. Research shows that the physical and the mental health of caregivers worsens when taking on the added responsibilities of caregiving and that caregiving may result in increased levels of blood pressure, insulin, and depression.
Doctors recognize that caregivers may be ‘hidden patients’ in many cases.
“If they don’t care for themselves, they can’t provide care for others. They need restorative care. The home has to be a refuge for both people,” says Dr. Lawren Hicks, MD, medical director of Senior Services for John Muir Health.
Care for Caregivers
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, caregivers need to realize that focusing on their own needs is an important part of the job of caregiving. The Alliance suggests that caregivers follow some of these self-care practices:
- Learn and use stress-reduction techniques. Stress reducers are often simple activities such as walking, gardening, meditation, or getting together with friends.
- Attend to your own healthcare
- Get rest and eat nutritious foods
- Take time off without feeling guilty
- Identify and acknowledge your feelings
- Set goals such as getting help with tasks like bathing or taking a vacation
- Change the negative ways you view situations.
- Seek and accept support from others
Many services can help balance the load. Arlene Phillips, director of Senior Services at John Muir Health, points out that “Sometimes, a person’s identity as a caregiver prevents them from taking a break, or giving up their caregiving responsibilities, even for a short time.”
However, she says, “You don’t have to go it alone. There is so much in the community to turn to, including respite (temporary) care, in-home care, or other options. There is an array of services for caregivers, which can connect you to the information and support you need.”
“Senior services at John Muir Health has a wide range of resources, and we are here to help anyone in the community at (925) 947-3300,” says Phillips. These options include:
- Information and referrals for health and aging-related services
- Geriatric care coordination — professional help with medical and aging issues
- Educational programs and support groups
“It’s good to communicate with family members and other parties early on when a family member needs care, and start planning ahead so that you know your options and what may come up,” says Phillips.
“There are important tasks, such as setting up the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, and discussing financial planning,” she says.
According to Suzanne Leib, lead geriatric care coordinator at John Muir, “If you are the sole support for the person, be aware of signs that may signal when care cannot be managed at home. These include serious behavior issues, incontinence, or a decrease in physical abilities.”
Senior care professionals also stress that avoiding “caregiver guilt” is important. “You are doing your best for your loved one, and that includes taking care of your own health. He or she would not want you to ignore your own well-being on their behalf,” adds Phillips.