Being a Happier, Healthier Caregiver
When Helen’s mother had a stroke in 1994, Helen became her caregiver. Working full-time as a teacher and living an hour’s drive from her mother, each visit takes at least half a day.
Fortunately, Helen’s mom’s stroke left few physical side effects, so she was able to remain independent for awhile. Even so, she still needed someone to help her be more attentive to her blood pressure and the rest of her medical care.
Eventually, Helen’s mom needed cataract surgery in both eyes and then broke her foot and her wrist in quick succession. For all of these events, she leaned on her daughter for assistance. Then, in 2003, at the age of eighty-five, Helen’s mother had a second stroke. This time it caused paralysis on her right side and she had difficulty expressing herself verbally. She now requires care twenty-four hours a day, which thankfully, Medicaid provides in the home. Nonetheless, Helen spends roughly twenty hours a week coordinating everything else her mother needs – taking her to and from doctors’ appointments, shopping for food and clothes, overseeing and training her caregivers and more.
“More” is the key word here: whatever Helen does, she feels that there is always something else she can, or should, do to make her mother’s life better. Helen says she feels satisfied by everything she does for her mother – “she was a good mother and I want to be a good daughter” – but she admits it can be overwhelming. She says that the hardest part is always wondering whether her mother is enjoying life, and whether all the caregiving effort is making a difference. .
Helen’s story is common. An estimated 44 million people take care of another adult in the United States each year. Are you one of them? You may say “yes” immediately, or maybe you don’t realize how much time and effort you’re devoting to looking after that person and so you don’t identify yourself as a caregiver.
Whether your loved one lives with you full-time, five miles away or clear across the country, the work you are doing to keep him or her living in the community (i.e. not in a nursing home) is probably unpaid and sometimes stressful – but extremely important. A caregiver’s tasks run the gamut from monitoring someone with dementia 24/7 – to taking a loved one to appointments, fetching his or her medicines or groceries, hiring and overseeing home care workers or calling to check in multiple times a day.
Some 60 percent of caregivers also work full-time, in many cases balancing the responsibility of a job, a family and someone who has chronic or serious illness and needs special attention.
Many caregivers find their work rewarding. After all, it can be gratifying to recognize and solve problems, and above all, see what a difference you can make by giving your time in a way that improves quality of life for somebody else – especially a loved one. In some instances, though, caregivers feel underappreciated, stressed and overwhelmed. If you fall into this category, it is important to seek out ways that can help you feel less burdened.
If you’re one of the millions of caregivers in this country, there are many places you can turn to for help. Contact your local hospital and ask if they have a caregiver support program. If not, ask if there is a social worker or benefit office to help you figure out what additional resources your loved one is entitled to and how to apply for them. Also, if you are caring for someone with chronic or serious illness, ask if there is a palliative care consult service or outpatient program. These services are multi-disciplinary and will likely have nurses, doctors and social workers who can help you, and the person you care for, get what you need.
Some national Web sites can help you find community programs in your area that may offer additional resources (about, for example, elder case management, day programs, friendly volunteers, visiting mental health professionals, help with estate planning or bill paying, food delivery services such as Meals-on-Wheels etc). Two government sponsored sites that provide information on local programs nationwide are – www.eldercare.gov, www.aoa.gov/prof/aoaprog/caregiver/caregiver.asp. The National Family Caregivers Association (www.nfcacares.org) also has helpful information for caregivers and useful links to caregiver resources.
Caregivers, particularly those reporting stress, have been shown to have a 60 percent increased risk of death compared to non-caregivers. If you feel depressed or that your own health is suffering, you should make it a priority to visit your own doctor to be sure that your own medical problems are well treated. And keep in mind that you cannot be a good caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself.