Caregiving for an Older Adult: Stressing and a Blessing

Clare WohlgemuthClare M. Wohlgemuth, RN, GCNS-BC
Nursing Director, Geriatric Services
Boston Medical Center
Boston, Massachusetts

 If you are helping a family member or friend over age 50 with things such as dressing, bathing, housework, or taking medicine on a regular basis, then you are a caregiver. You are not alone—there are close to 50 million Americans involved in caregiving. Caregivers spend an average of 20 hours each week caring for one (or more) older adults. About one in four of caregivers have been giving care for more than five years. About three in four caregivers work a paying job and spend up to $5000 out of pocket each year to help with caregiving costs.

Caregiving has been a part of community life for a long time. These days, the amount and types of help provided by family caregivers has increased a great deal. This has also raised the costs of caregiving—both economic and psychological. Now, loved ones often come home from the hospital earlier and with more complicated conditions. This means that caregivers often take on many roles in addition to providing companionship and emotional support. Caregivers may give medications, find and coordinate services, and perform basic nursing. They also communicate with healthcare providers, coordinate care during transitions from hospital to home, and advocate for their loved ones during visits with healthcare providers and hospital stays.

Caregivers are at higher risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression because of the burden of these many roles. Their physical health may also suffer. It is normal for caregivers to feel alone and overwhelmed. Caregivers may also feel unable to communicate well with the person receiving care and/or other family members. They also report needing information on how to keep their loved ones safe at home and to find activities to do with them. And caregivers also need resources to help them manage their own stress and make time for themselves.

In our recent study of geriatrics health providers who are also caregivers, we found all of these challenges. Even those most prepared to handle all the different caregiving tasks found it very difficult. If you are a caregiver AND a healthcare professional, you may face additional burdens—and will also benefit from support. [You can click here to read the full study.]

What You Can Do
In order to cope with the demands of caregiving, all caregivers need to get help. It is good to ask questions, and to ask for help! If you are not happy with the answers you are getting, it’s important to keep asking. Also keep looking for the information and support that you need, perhaps from other resources. There are many places you can look to for help: hospitals, your community, and online resources.

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National Family Caregiver Month

When you hear the words “family caregiver” what image comes to mind? Odds are, you envision a woman. We tend to assume that family caregivers are wives, daughters, sisters, nieces, and granddaughters. But here’s a surprise: According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 45 percent of relatives caring for older adults in the U.S. are men.
What accounts for the growing percentage of men caring for older family members? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, decades-long declines in family size, and increasingly far-flung families, are likely contributors. If your aging mom needs help, and you’re the only nearby, you step up to bat. Period.

So this month—National Family Caregiver Month—and beyond, we at the American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging (HIA) hope you’ll show your support for the women and men you know who are caring for their aging relatives. While growing numbers of husbands, sons, brothers, nephews, and grandsons are now playing this role, they may be less likely than women to reach out for help with caregiving when they need it, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. This means we need to do more to reach out to them.

Organizations and services for family caregivers are already doing this. The Journal story, for example, spotlights a Colorado home care service that created a virtual community just for men—www.malecaregivercommunity.com—thinking it would be more appealing to male caregivers . It has been. “Since it started in June, more than 84 discussions have developed,” the paper reports.

In addition to support, family caregivers also need top-notch information. And that’s where Healthinaging.org comes in. Among other things, it offers comprehensive information about caring for even the most medically complex older adults—those with multiple, chronic health problems. Just as important, it offers information about caring for yourself if you’re a caregiver. We hope you’ll mention the site to the family caregivers you know— men and women alike.

Caregivers and Health in Aging Resources

Having been a caregiver for my seriously ill mother and father in their later years, I know first-hand how truly gratifying it is to provide this kind of care.  However, I also know how hard it can be.

If you are among the more than 43 million Americans who are unpaid caregivers for older friends or family members, you know how much time and effort this kind of care requires.  Caregiving for an older adult can involve so many things—from helping them get in and out of bed, dress, navigate stairs, eat, bathe and use the toilet, to providing transportation, getting groceries, preparing meals, managing finances, and giving medications.  Along with all of these everyday tasks, caregivers also need to figure out how to work with healthcare providers and government agencies to ensure their loved ones get the medical care they need and the health benefits to which they’re entitled.  All with no compensation, except the satisfaction of helping an older family member, friend or neighbor.

Not surprisingly, caregivers need help and support too.

One of the missions of the AGS Foundation for Health in Aging is to provide health information to older adults and those who care for them.  The Foundation has a portfolio of resources on Health in Aging that we hope will be helpful to caregivers.  Resources such as Caregiving How To’s, Tip Sheets, and information on managing specific health problems that are unique to older adults.

While providing information is important, it is also important to learn from one another, through shared stories, experiences, and feedback.  Please feel free to leave us a comment below and share your caregiving experiences.   Or let us know what you found most helpful on our website, or what you wish you had more help, advice, or support with.

Together we can work to provide the older adults we care about with the best care we can.