More Americans than ever before are caring for an older adult spouse, family member or friend. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, almost a third of American households include a caregiver. In addition, 85% of caregivers look after a relative or other loved one, and 42% of them care for a parent.
Being a caregiver isn’t easy. Caregivers often feel frustrated, tired, and alone. Over time, these emotions can compound and lead to bigger problems for the caregiver and the person who needs them. Their exhaustion may be physical, mental, or emotional and may lead to an increased risk of illness and feelings of guilt or depression. If the long-term stress of caregiving is taking a toll on your wellness, you may need support and care for yourself.
What can a caregiver do?
We talked with JF&CS Geriatric Care Manager (GCM) Debbi Dooley about how caregivers can help themselves and their loved one. Debbi works with the JF&CS Older Adult Services Caregiver Support team and is the facilitator for several caregiver support groups. In her GCM role, she works closely with AgeWell Atlanta.
“AgeWell Atlanta offers so much to support caregivers,” says Debbi. “The AgeWell Atlanta concierge specialists take calls from all over Metro Atlanta and are skilled at zeroing in on callers’ issues, so they can refer elders and their care partners to the right resources, where and when they need them.”
In addition to AgeWell Atlanta’s Information and Referral services for caregivers, the AgeWell Atlanta Neighborhoods program provides community-building activities and social events that can contribute to an elder’s overall health and well-being. This can help caregivers keep their elder loved ones connected, physically and mentally active, and engaged in cultural activities. “For several years, I’ve had the good fortune to be the facilitator of AgeWell Atlanta’s Coffee and Conversation Group,” says Debbi, “which is a lovely group of individuals who discuss topics that are meaningful to them. Groups like these can be a great resource for seniors and their caregivers!”
Self-care for caregivers
Debbi works with a lot with caregivers. She understands the stresses of being responsible for another adult, especially a loved one. She’s learned a lot about how self-sacrificing caregiving can be. To help combat caregiver burnout, Debbi has six suggestions:
- Intentionally set aside time for self-care
For many people, it’s not enough to realize you need time for yourself. You also need to schedule that time, give yourself permission to take a step back from being a care partner, and find the resources you need to help yourself.
Debbi recalled a story from a caregiver group she facilitated. “I’ll never forget one caregiver who worked an eight-hour day and then went straight to the nursing home to spend six more hours helping care for a beloved family member. In the caregiver group, he was unable to think of anything he’d done for himself. Then one day, he told the group that he’d bought a pair of shoes. You see, he’d talked about his past love of hiking but felt he couldn’t take time to get outside. After he started hiking again, he said he felt like he’d rediscovered a part of himself that was lost, and he credited the group with encouraging him to take time for self-care.”
- Learn to ask for help
As Debbi explains, “We’re taught as a culture that we should be self-sufficient. But supporting a fully actuated, adult human being is complex. Helping with bill paying, financial management, activities of daily living, providing food, and recognizing problems – carrying out all those needs may be overwhelming and may require asking for help.”
Finding help can be as simple as a call to AgeWell Atlanta to get advice. Whether you want to learn more about how you can help your loved one or need to find someone else to help them, it’s important to make the call.
- Building a supportive team
You’ll need to organize a system of care to support your loved one. The elder may need a geriatrician and other doctors, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, an elder law attorney, a care manager, a home care provider, or a driver. It’s important to have all these people available to support the caregiver and their loved one.
If an elder moves into a residential community for senior living, many of their needs may be met there, depending on the level of care required. Regardless of where the elder lives, having a supportive team can take some of the load off a caregiver’s shoulders, so they can step back into the original role of loving friend or family member.
In addition, if you’re a caregiver, it’s important to build a supportive team for yourself. Find a support group to join or investigate supportive counseling for yourself, especially if you feel overwhelmed by caregiving.
- Create a care plan
An excellent way to manage the help a loved one needs is to receive support from a Geriatric Care Manager. As Debbi puts it, “If someone calls for help but it isn’t clear about what to do, an assessment and care plan can bring their needs into focus.
A care manager will review all aspects of care and the activities of daily living, including eating, bathing, dressing, moving around, managing money, and getting places. This can identify issues that need to be addressed and the tools they’ll need to remedy the situation.
- Follow through on the care plan
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell an elder what they need,” says Debbi. “Even if the assessment comes from an unbiased third party, like a geriatric care manager, they may push back.” The elder may feel like their independence is being threatened or not want someone coming into their home and telling them what to do.
Debbi adds, “The best communication may not be to tell your mom what she needs. Instead, use “I” statements. ‘I just feel better when you have someone else to go with you to the doctor. It’s good to have another pair of eyes and ears and I can’t do that right now.’” Once the initial care plan’s written, the care manager can help carry out the plan. If the plan isn’t working well, the family may need help to revise it. Once the goals of the plan are achieved, it’s a good idea to have regular check-ups with the care manager, so they can address new issues and alter the original plan to find solutions that will work for the family, the elder and their lifestyle.
- Make sure to have a Plan B
Things may be working fine for the elder right now, but it’s important to think ahead. If something unforeseen changes with their health or cognitive ability, it’s best for family members and loved ones to have knowledge of aging services and be prepared to get the necessary help, before a crisis happens. It’s important to discuss a possible alternate plan when things are calm, being careful to include the elder’s input and wishes. Plan B conversations can be tough but being prepared and knowledgeable can relieve a great deal of stress, if anything unexpected does happen.
If you have questions, need support, or want to learn more, reach out to an AgeWell Atlanta professionals by calling 1-866-243-9355 or emailing [email protected].