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Help for Care Givers

Providing care for a family member in need is a centuries-old act of kindness, love, and loyalty. As life expectancies increase and medical treatments advance, more and more of us will participate in the care giving process, either as the caregiver, the recipient of care, or possibly both. Unfortunately, care giving can take a heavy toll if you don’t get adequate support. Care giving involves many stressors: changes in the family dynamic, household disruption, financial pressure, and the sheer amount of work involved. The rewards of care giving – if they come at all – are intangible and far off, and often there is no hope for a happy outcome.

Caregivers, the people who devote themselves to the unpaid care of chronically ill or disabled family members, are the people most prone to burnout. The demands of care giving can be overwhelming, especially if you feel you have little control over the situation or that you are in over your head. If you let the stress of care giving progress to burnout, it can damage both your physical and mental health. So if you are caring for a family member, it is essential that you get the support you need. The good news is that you are not alone. Help for caregivers are available. This column will provide some tips for those entrusted with the task of family care giving.

Caregiver tip #1

Allow care recipients to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible. Caregivers must resist the impulse to rush in and try to fix things. Caregivers who respect seniors’ needs to remain independent will allow them to do what they can do, even if their actions may not be up to “normal” standards. Focus on capacity (what the care recipient can do) rather than incapacity (what the care recipient can’t do).

Caregiver tip #2

Intervene gracefully and only when necessary. Caregivers must strive to make decisions with care recipients and not for them. Caregivers must respect the autonomy and sovereignty of care recipients who, unless they are seriously mentally incapacitated, have the right to make decisions about their own care and their own activities. Respectful support means that caregivers let go of many of their expectations. Care recipients may take longer to do everything – caregivers must accommodate this slower pace.

Caregiver tip #3

Get and give up-to-date information on health issues. Good information helps caregivers understand the course of illnesses and how best to manage them. When caregivers have knowledge of care recipients’ illnesses, they will be better able to communicate with attending physicians.

Caregivers are encouraged to attend medical appointments with their care recipients. Encourage care recipients to be honest and explicit about symptoms at home and during medical exams. In fact, caregivers can facilitate openness during medical exams by faxing information to physicians before appointments to advise them of symptoms or concerns, or about changes seniors may not see (e.g., growing forgetfulness negligence of daily chores, trouble with routine tasks).

Additionally, by attending appointments, caregivers will be better able to comply with medication directives and watch out for possible side effects addressed by physicians.

Caregiver tip #4

Don’t take on too much responsibility. Care usually falls on the shoulders of one person – the primary caregiver. Though the care giving responsibility is often too much for one person to adequately handle, rarely is it shared. This creates the possibility of serial care giving, where each successive burns out and then another takes over. It’s important to be honest about the burdens involved and make a plan as to how they will be distributed across several helpers and how the primary caregiver will receive relief.

Caregiver tip #5

Manage stress. Most caregivers experience enormous stress, which can wear on their health and lead to inadequate care for the recipient. Caregivers must mitigate their own stress, realize their limits, and set boundaries with their care recipients.

Caregiver tip #6

Get help when you need it. Some caregivers believe that asking for help demonstrates weakness or character flaws. Yet caregivers need respite, routine breaks from care, and life-enhancing activities to mitigate their stress so they can continue in their important work.

Not everyone is suited to care giving. Before assuming care-giving duties, it is important that caregivers participate in a process that Bernie Siegel, the physician who specializes in self-care for cancer therapy, calls “carefrontation,” a time of introspection to help potential caregivers determine if they can legitimately embrace the role. Introspection is an honest appraisal of capabilities when caregivers take a hard and truthful look at who they are and what they can handle physically, emotionally, and mentally. Once you have determined what your own capabilities are, then you can honestly assess what care giving role you can assume for your loved one.


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Boomers Resource Guide is a special supplement to the Senior Citizen's Guide