Caregivers should take care as well as give it

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
There are only four kinds of people in this world:

Those who have been caregivers;

Those who currently are caregivers;

Those who will be caregivers; and

Those who will need caregivers.

-Rosalynn Carter

If your household isn’t already one of the nearly 25 percent of U.S. households that care for an older relative or friend, chances are you will have that opportunity someday.

The numbers are staggering.

— More than 7.3 million older people in this country need help with activities of daily living.

— Family members and informal caregivers provide two thirds of that care and are considered the backbone of the long-term care system.

— Older Americans are the fastest-growing population group. Of that group, the subgroup growing most rapidly is the “oldest old” -those aged 85 and older.

Thanks to advances in medical care, people are living longer and healthier lives.

But lengthened life expectancy also means more people are contending with chronic health problems that may require the help of family members for a long time.

That help takes a variety of forms including helping with household chores, transportation, errands, personal care and finances.

A survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the American Association of Retired Persons reported that the typical caregiver spends 18 hours a week in various caregiving activities. Two-thirds of caretakers are also employed.

The shoes of the caregiver are most commonly filled by women, usually wives and daughters.

According to the American Society on Aging, 29 percent of family caregivers are daughters; 26 percent are relatives, friends and neighbors; 23 percent are wives; 13 percent are husbands; and 9 percent are sons.

The average caregiver is age 46, female, married and works outside the home.

Although caring for family members has been part of our culture for centuries, it has become more complicated in today’s world where two-career couples, full-time jobs, and families spread throughout the country are the norm.

With many elderly people living well into their 90s and some past 100, providing care to a family member can be a lengthy proposition. Researchers suggest that most women can expect to spend as many years helping elderly parents as they did raising their children.

Toll on the caregiver

“What we’re seeing is that more people are staying in their homes longer, and that’s good because that’s where they want to be,” said Noreen Weems, director of the Marion County Department for the Elderly.

The downside is that the role of caregiver takes a heavy toll on family members.

“We find many caregivers just get stressed out,” she said.

Many caregivers are reluctant to use formal help, and they struggle with the conflicting demands of jobs, families and caregiving. Their own health may suffer as a result.

Caregivers complain of disrupted sleep patterns, poor nourishment, less frequent exercise, depression and anxiety. Add to that feelings of being discouraged, trapped and overburdened, and you have a recipe for burnout, or worse, health problems.

“The caregiver can become ill,” said Weems. “Sometimes you find that the person that was receiving the help outlives the caregiver.”

Caregiver relief

Weems is a strong believer in the value of respite care to provide the caregiver with occasional relief.

“Respite care is helping to provide some time off for family members who are caregivers,” she said.

Providing respite care does not necessarily require a lot of training, she said.

“It is more or less adult care sitting,” she said. “They could just go in and read the paper while the caregiver stretches out and takes a rest or goes out and waters the flowers.”

Weems has a dream of establishing an organized support group in the county to provide respite care.

“In each of our communities, we do have neighbors helping neighbors,” Weems said. “But what would be really ideal is if there were a volunteer program where someone could come in for an hour or two to sit with a loved one.”

That hour or two would give caregivers the chance to go out and get their hair done or attend a club meeting.

Formal respite care

Longer periods of respite care are necessary for the health of the caregiver too, Weems said.

Some nursing facilities offer formal respite care programs designed to give caregivers an extended break.

Legacy Park in Peabody offers both an adult day-care program and an overnight respite-care program.

“It can benefit somebody who needs to go out of town overnight to a funeral or maybe a family reunion,” said Renae Kersenbrock, Legacy Park administrator. “Or for just a day of shopping where they don’t have to bring that person along with them and worry about them or find someone else to care for them at home while they’re gone.”

The program works on an as-needed basis, Kersenbrock said.

“Once someone has brought them in for even one day of day care, we don’t have to go through the same paperwork over and over again,” she said.

The program gives caregivers the opportunity to leave their loved one in the hands of trained staff.

“If they have the opportunity to get away, even for one day a month, they may be able to deal with their challenges a little better,” Kersenbrock said.

She encourages caregivers to get help before it is too late.

“By the time caregivers finally say ‘I need some help’ they’ve waited too long,” she said. “Because they are so physically drained themselves that they aren’t taking care of their own body. They are compromising their own health.”

She said one man told her he had not been away for more than 10 minutes in three years, except when someone else came in so he could run to the pharmacy for his medications.

“We have learned that there are people out there no matter what community you’re in who try to do it all on their own,” Kersenbrock said. “They start out thinking ‘I can do this’ and they don’t realize how deep they get in.”

Support groups

Talking to other caregivers who share the same issues and concerns is one way of dealing with the stress of caregiving and reducing the feeling of aloneness.

Khrista Branson, activity director/social service designee at St. Luke Living Center, has started a caregiver support group that meets the second Tuesday of each month from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the clinic basement.

“There are a lot of people who are caring for their loved ones, especially spouses, and children who are trying to care for their parents while they’re also trying to juggle a job,” she said.

Branson said the idea for the support program came from her own need.

“There are a number of us here who were dealing with caring for our parents,” she said.

They realized how helpful it was to talk to people who were dealing with similar challenges.

“Some of our programs have been on stress and how to handle it-like meditation or exercise or prayer,” Branson said. “One of the things we’re looking toward in the future is somebody that can help us understand the process of grieving and the process of guilt that we all go through as our aged parents become more reliant on us.”

Branson said the topic for the June meeting will be resources that are available in the community, such as respite care.

“It’s open to anybody, even those who are caring for young children who have special needs. They’re under a lot of stress too,” she said. “It’s mainly to reach out to those people who are feeling walled in and are needing a little extra help.”

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