Caring for the caregiver


part one

Meet Jennifer, 43-years-old, married, mother of two. Jennifer recently lost her 75-year-old mother, Lena, a hearty robust woman who was hardly sick a day in her life. She seemed to be adjusting well after the death two years ago of her long time spouse of 50 years, Jennifer’s father. Everyone including Lena thought she would have several good years to enjoy life without the demanding role as primary caregiver of her ailing spouse. Jennifer is still reeling from the shock of losing both her parents in such a short time.

Jennifer’s father had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for the past decade. Lena, Jennifer and her siblings with the help of other family and friends chose to care for him at home. For the most part he needed help with the basic activities of daily living- bathing, dressing, eating, all very seemingly simple tasks, but always 24/7.

Lena did a commendable job caring for her husband and did her best to share her care giving role. Although she typically failed to get enough rest, keep her own doctor’s appointments, exercise, garden and pursue all the things that gave her life diversity and some mental down time from her constant role as primary caregiver.

Unfortunately new studies indicate Lena is one of 15 million people in the US that have daily personal care responsibilities for another older person. Sadly some 63 percent of these elderly caregivers are at risk of premature aging and death. Similar studies found 50+ percent of elderly caregivers age 75 have the immunity of a 90-95 year old leaving them susceptible to infections, poor physiological adaptability and cancer.

These same studies suggest that older married couples with care recipient and caregiver needs should be evaluated as a unit assessing the health of both, adaptability to change and the strength of their remaining social group including family and friends. The assessment of the elderly caregiver should include help recognizing their own limitations as caregivers and validation of their own needs. Most caregivers feel the needs of their loved one are greater than their own and the last of their really good years are allowed to slip away in a selfless form of neglect.

Having been in the caregiving profession all my adult life I’ve seen this phenomenon many times. One would think after the loved one passes, the burden lifted, the quality of life for the caregiver would improve. Many older individuals will elude that the caregiver had nothing more to live for and simply chose to die. But what about individuals like Lena that seemed ready to move on, so full of life?

Besides what is becoming the obvious, the elderly with precious little reserve caring for the elderly we need a better perspective on end of life quality. When the care given did not result in renewed life and is instead viewed as a failure it may be a bigger blow than is humanly possible to handle. Sad as it may be it is not our failure that our loving care did not keep our loved one from dying. All of us here on the earth own a body that will some day close down.

Important studies such as these are steps in the right direction helping us recognize and meet the individual needs of caregivers. They suggest that despite the rather large group of aging baby boomers we are beginning to find solutions to adequately meet the needs of the care recipient and caregiver while depending less heavily on the use of formal long-term care.

part two

Last week in part one we looked the typical scenario of an elderly caregiver. Surprising even to me the statistics show the larger percentage of elderly that need help with the activities of daily living are cared for in the home, usually by their spouse. Unfortunately the help the caregivers receive from family, friends and other sources has not been enough to keep them from becoming ill or succumbing from the pressure of their endless duties. This week in part two I’ll talk about ways to support and give respite to our precious elderly that give so much of themselves for another loved one.

The elderly caregiver first and foremost needs encouragement to continue with their own activities of daily living including proper amounts of rest, good food, time for fun and some time away from home. Although many elderly caregivers are now overlooking their own health they shouldn’t. Yearly check ups with the family doctor are more important than ever. Scheduled tests such as mammograms and blood screenings should not be delayed. Optimally the family doctor cares for both the care recipient and the caregiver and develops treatment approaches that focus on the needs of both individuals simultaneously as well as a unit.

Here are some other ideas on how to support an elderly caregiver-

Ask caregivers to identify the problems they find most distressing and work to address them.

Choose a physician that is willing to work with you and your individual situation. The encouragement given by a physician can help sustain a caregiver.

To help keep stress at lowered levels, encourage ongoing involvement of people other than the main caregivers.

Help the caregiver recognize their need for respite without feeling guilty. Recommending some time away, a vacation or temporary nursing home care can give the caregiver the permission needed to proceed.

Subtle suggestions may be a waste of time. Be willing to call daytime care agencies, church or other support groups that can be enlisted to help with care.

Locally, contact Alternatives for the Older Adult. The agency is supported by the Illinois Department of Aging, your gifts to United Way, volunteers and the AARP; interventions include evaluation of needs, counseling, money management, elder abuse, legal services, and education. The Galesburg office located in The Hawthorne Center serves, Knox, Henderson and Warren counties.

Day-to-day care of a frail older person can be stressful, exhausting, and demoralizing. Through measures such as those listed here, you can support caregivers and contribute to their well being as well. Till next time, Rebecca