With more than 44 million family caregivers in the United States, chances are you or someone you know is taking care of a loved one. This can be an extremely rewarding experience as it allows caregivers the opportunity to demonstrate their love for someone dear. Yet, caregiving also can be quite demanding; making it easy and common for caregivers to feel overwhelmed, compromising their emotional and physical health. Additionally, some caregivers may be part of the “sandwich generation,” which demands that they juggle work and children in addition to their caregiving responsibilities.
Caregiving can take an emotional as well as physical toll. Tasks such as lifting or maneuvering assistive equipment can cause back and shoulder injuries. Worry associated with the responsibility can bring about depression. Often caregivers’ health is compromised because they neglect their own care and don’t take the time to nurse themselves back from colds or steadfastly monitor their own chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Additionally, caregivers may feel burdened, which can put a strain on their immune systems jeopardizing their health. If a caregiver’s health suffers, so too may the health of the loved one. Therefore, it is crucial for caregivers to take care of themselves. Being able to recognize the signs of “caregiver stress,” such as sleeplessness, irritability, poor concentration, change in appetite and social withdrawal is very important.
Caregivers can try to relieve some of this stress by participating in support groups, maintaining a regular exercise program and accepting the reality that they can’t do or control everything —illness and disease take their own course. Putting aside time for yourself, ensuring enough sleep, taking breaks, accepting help and/or talking to a friend or professional for emotional, legal and/or financial advice can go a long way toward alleviating “caregiver burnout.” Remember that the point of caregiving is to help a loved one. Putting your own health in jeopardy leaves your loved one at risk. While caregivers can often feel guilty about taking time for themselves, it is necessary under these circumstances.
The burdens of caregiving can often be eased by outside organizations and services. There are many federal, state, county as well as local resources and supports available to caregivers. The trick is knowing where to turn. Services such as respite programs and home health aides are available through many local organizations. Check your local listings as services may vary by community.
Other resources include:
- Medicare Rights Association
- Social Security Administration
- Food Stamps
- Low-Income Energy Assistance Programs (HEAP)
- Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage (EPIC)
- Para Transit
- Adult Day Centers
- Caregiver Support Groups
- Disease-Specific Support Groups (Gilda’s Club, American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association, Cancer Support Team)
- Geriatric Care Management, Geriatricians, Geriatric Psychiatrists
- Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly (EISEP)
- Local Office for the Aging
Caregivers should not hesitate to contact these organizations; their purpose is to assist you. Fortunately, as more and more people take on the role of caregiver, additional services and resources are available to aid in this tremendously rewarding and challenging job. While caregiving is challenging for a variety of reasons, it also can be fulfilling and gratifying. Try to take the time to appreciate the rewards it brings. Embrace the opportunity to deepen or renew your relationship with your loved one.
Valerie Rissman, LMSW is Coordinator of Project Time-Out and Jane Slevin, LMFT is Coordinator of the Family Caregiver Network at Westchester Jewish Community Services.