With more than 80 percent of the long-term care for the elderly and disabled in the United States provided by family members and loved ones, chances are you will be caregiver at some time in your life. What do you need to know?
As we witness the graying of America, an increasing number of people in the United States find themselves in the role of caring for a disabled spouse or elderly parents. While intergenerational caregiving used to be the norm for families at the beginning of the 20th century, as the U.S. population became more mobile, adult children often moved hundreds of miles away from their parents, which made the tradition of grandparents helping with their grandchildren less prevalent. Conversely, adult children are not necessarily around the corner when their aging parents need assistance with everyday activities or when they are managing a chronic disease. As the cost of average cost of long term care in nursing homes and assisted living facilities skyrockets, families are returning to the tradition of caring for their aging parents at home. If you are one of these family caregivers, what are the basics you need to know?
- You are not alone: Often when people begin their caregiving journey, they feel isolated and overwhelmed with their new responsibilities. The reality is that 4.4 million people, or over 20 percent of Americans, act as unpaid caregivers for a family member or loved on each year. As you begin your caregiving journey, reach out to others in your community who are also caring for their elderly or infirmed loved one. In addition to providing moral support and a real understanding of the challenges you are facing, these veteran caregivers usually have extensive knowledge about the resources available in your community. Another way to link with other caregivers is to contact a local home health care agency or to contact the Minnesota Help Senior Link, both of which can direct you to local caregiver support groups.
- Acknowledge caregiver stress is real. Until you actually assume the duties involved in caring for an elderly parent or loved one, it is easy to underestimate the degree of stress you will encounter as you meet the needs of an infirmed adult. In addition to the physical demands associated with caring for a loved one, such as lifting or getting up in the middle of the night, you are going to have to deal with the emotional stressors as well. At times, you might feel angry and frustrated, while other times you might experience fear and sadness if your family member’s condition takes a turn for the worse. Finding ways to cope with stress constructively, such as a sharing a good laugh with a loved one, can help you avoid the perils of caregiver burnout that people commonly experience.
- Knowledge is power. One of the causes of stress for new caregivers is not knowing what to expect during the course of their family member’s chronic illness. By taking the time to learn about your loved one’s disease, you’ll have some benchmarks for your family’s “new normal.” Additionally, this newfound knowledge will help you advocate for your loved one when they are unable to do so for themselves.
Some sources of information caregivers can use include:
- The National Institute of Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Referral Center
- The National Cancer Information Service
- The Veteran’s Administration Guide to Long Term Care
- Resources for Post 9/11 Veterans and Their Caregivers
- National Institute of Health Senior Health Guide
- National Parkinson Foundation
- Brain Injury Alliance Minnesota
- Minnesota Family Caregiver Alliance
- Mental Health Association of Minnesota
Additionally, Minnesota home health agencies are the local experts in caring for people with chronic illnesses and they are more than willing to share their information with you.
- Understand The Challenges of Giving Up Independence. Do you remember how much you anticipated getting your driver’s license or the excitement of getting your first apartment? Well, the emotions associated with giving up car keys or a home are just as intense for your elderly parent or disabled loved one, but they are not the joyous ones they experienced in their youth. In fact, chances are your loved one will actually grieve the loss of these sources of independence and freedom. As a family caregiver, your loved one may lash out in anger at you for no apparent reason soon after these losses. Other times, your elderly parent might seem withdrawn and sad. If possible, try to discuss their anger and/or sadness about their loss of independence with them and express an understanding of their feelings. In cases where this is not possible, consider reaching out to their doctor or personal care assistant for advice.
- Reach out for help. All too many new family caregivers try to take on the role of Superman and do everything themselves. Those who go this route tend to burn out quickly as it is impossible to meet the needs of a chronically ill adult or disabled on your own. If there are other family members who live nearby, try to enlist their help with caregiving duties. Sometimes even out of town relatives can arrange to stay for a weekend to offer you a break. Another option is to take advantage of the services offered by a personal care assistant (PCA) through a Minnesota home health agency. Often families discover these services are available at little or no cost to the family and the assistance with transportation, meal preparation, and companionship is invaluable.
While taking care of your elderly parent or disabled loved one will pose some challenges, many family caregivers find that it is also a rewarding experience and find they later cherish this time they spent as a caregiver to their family member.