What’s the hardest and warmest job? Caregiving. It hits you on so many levels: heart, home, head, back muscles, social life. It starts with a warm, caring heart for a loved one. The journey calls for thousands of adjustments big and small. Relationships change, navigating the medical maze taxes the brain and patience, attending to physical needs uses muscles you didn’t know you had, and the social isolation of it all adds to the challenge.
November is National Caregivers Month, a month dedicated to recognizing and appreciating the caregivers among us. That does not make the journey shorter, but it does put a spotlight on one of life’s biggest challenges. In the U.S., about one of every three adults cares for someone who is ill, disabled or aged. Chances are pretty high that you or someone you know is a caregiver. As baby boomers age, caregiving is the trend.
Caregiving can be checking on a friend or family member periodically to caring for a loved one 24 hours a day (some call it the 36-hour day), and everything in between. A friend or family member may need help with shopping, preparing food, transportation, housekeeping, laundry or medication. He or she may need help with feeding, dressing, bathing, reading mail or paying bills. Family caregivers provide emotional support in ways that only kin can do.
One of the biggest challenges is coordinating medical care, with all its dysfunctional disparate parts, and continually revising plans. Medications are a huge hurdle, with pills that look alike when they are different and look different when they are the same, changing prescriptions, and a dizzying array of interactions and side-effects.
AARP’s caregiving website aarp.org/caregiving offers tools and support to help you with the caregiving journey. In the chat room you can connect with other caregivers and pose your perplexing questions to the experts. Click on the link for “you know you are a caregiver if…” to enjoy a humorous video laughing at the surreal twists of caregiver life.
Help for caregivers comes in many forms. Home health nurses not only understand the health issues and medication, but can also assess the psychological and social needs and make recommendation for care and resources. Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Program or senior care management services. A local care manager may help you determine what you need, identify financial options, be the neutral counselor to help the person in need express her needs, and develop a plan of care. The many local agencies on aging, such as the Senior Resource Alliance or Area Agency on Aging can be resources. In some religious congregations, parish nurses help caregivers.
Working at a job and caring for someone else is a tricky balancing act. One of Bill Clinton’s legacy legislative successes is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Based on the premise that no American should have to choose between caring for family and keeping his job, FMLA provides job protection to caregivers who may be off the job for up to 60 days in a year in order to care for a family member. Not everyone is eligible for this benefit, but it is worth investigating your options.
If you are a caregiver, you have to find a way to be your healthiest. The extra hours, emotional ups and downs, pressures and responsibility take a toll, but an unhealthy caregiver can’t help others as well. You need to be sure to well, get enough exercise and sleep, have some outside social interaction, and find your joy. Caregivers also need a buffer from unhelpful or even hostile family members. Keep your focus on the person who needs the care and on your own health.
Each person and each family is unique, with unique combinations of needs and resource. We are all connected as humans and need one another; caregiving is natural for many of us. Caregiving can also be its own reward. What can be more fulfilling and meaningful than helping someone you care about?