Since his stroke, Jerry has lived with his daughter, Martha. She takes him to his rehab appointments and helps him with shaving and dressing. But Martha has osteoarthritis in her lower back, so it’s getting more difficult to help him into the car. Their calendar is filled with medical appointments. “And our kitchen counter looks like a pharmacy!” Martha says.
Families have always stepped in when older relatives needed care. In the old days, the typical situation would be an elder parent receiving care from adult children. But today, that senior parent might still be caring for their own parents, or for their spouse. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, more than one-third of caregivers today are older than 65. Moreover, one-third of those older caregivers report being in fair to poor health, as well.
It is well documented that the stress and workload of caregiving can have a negative health effect. “Caregivers provide tremendous benefits for their loved ones, yet they may be at risk for lacking access to needed services, which puts their health in jeopardy,” said Jacob Bentley, Ph.D., of Seattle Pacific University. In a January 2020 study published by the American Psychological Association, Bentley reported, “We found that caregivers were more likely not to have healthcare coverage or forgo needed medical appointments and services. They were also at an increased risk of experiencing depression in their lifetime as compared with non-caregivers.”
Many of these caregivers simply don’t have time to follow a healthy lifestyle. According to the Canadian Journal of Cardiology (CJC), “Caregivers are more likely to continue to smoke and less likely to be physically active than individuals who provide no or low levels of care; their diets tend to be high in saturated fat intake, leading to greater body mass indexes; they spend less time engaging in self-care activities and report poor preventive health behaviors; they experience less or disordered sleep; and they demonstrate poor adherence to medication.”
Many family caregivers have an attitude that they should do it all on their own, but that attitude can result in a domino effect on later generations. To break that cycle, here are some steps to take:
Talk to your loved one’s healthcare provider … and to yours. There’s a growing awareness of the role of family caregivers, yet Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health experts say that only 28% of caregivers have been asked for their input. Speak up with information your loved one’s doctor should have. Inform your own healthcare provider if you are a caregiver; caregiving is a known potential health risk and should be addressed.
Talk to your siblings, adult children and other family members. Oftentimes, the caregiving role creeps up on us. We might do a few minor things for a loved one, then a bit more, until our caregiving tasks are many. It’s time for a family meeting! You don’t need to, and can’t, do it alone. Spousal caregivers are notably hesitant to open up the caregiving dynamic to others; the CJC study found that “spousal caregivers have higher levels of depressive symptoms, physical and financial burden, relationship strain, and lower levels of positive psychological well-being compared to adult children caregivers.”
Look into support services. There are many resources available to family caregivers. Download the Adult Caregiving Guide to get started. Your local senior services agency can also recommend care support services for your loved one, as well as caregiver support for you. An aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) can locate services and help your family devise the best care plan for your loved one.
Nurture your social connections. There can be a great deal of “togetherness” in the caregiver/care receiver role — and yet, paradoxically, both parties can still feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. Research shows that spending time exclusively with family simply isn’t enough for optimal emotional health. We need friends, as well. Make a lunch date with a friend. Join a support group. Even online connections can be beneficial.
Rethink your living situation. Is your home still appropriate for your needs? If your loved one lives with you, is it safe for your loved one, as well? There are options. Your loved one might do well in a supported living environment, such as assisted living. Even if you once promised your loved one you would always care for them at home, it could be time to rethink that, given new circumstances.
Home care can be the perfect support resource.
Most people prefer to stay in their own homes as their care needs change. Bringing in a professional caregiver takes a big load off family and helps normalize the relationship between senior and caregiver. “With my arthritis, it’s a struggle to help Dad get out of bed and go to the toilet,” said Martha, the daughter at the beginning of this blog. “But when the caregiver helps out, Dad’s dignity is preserved, and so is my back!”
Professional caregivers can provide assistance with personal care, housekeeping, meal preparation, transportation and supervision for exercise. A caregiver trained in memory care can support the well-being of seniors who are living with dementia. Care is available for a few hours a week, or 24/7, and can be provided in a supportive living community.
Right at Home carefully matches caregivers with families, and the results can be rewarding. “We thought a professional caregiver would seem like a third wheel in our home,” reports one caregiver spouse with vision loss, whose husband has Parkinson’s disease. “But instead, the caregiver is the third leg of our support stool! He helps Jim bathe and get dressed. Jim loves looking so sharp! And the caregiver drives us to doctor appointments.”
Accessing home care services can have a positive impact on both the care receiver and the caregiver … and, as we’ve seen, on everyone in the family!