November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize and salute the millions of Americans who provide care to an elderly, chronically ill or disabled family member. Since the National Family Caregivers Association estimates that there are 65 million caregivers in the U.S. alone, chances are you know one, or you are one.
Until you’ve been a caregiver firsthand, you can’t realize the stress, guilt and emotional burden that come with the job. A caregiver sacrifices a huge chunk of her life—nearly 70% of caregivers are women—in order to care for a needy loved one. Her own health suffers, and she is 2 1/2 times more likely to live in poverty than are non-caregivers. She skips outings with friends, trips to the gym, and even misses out on relationships in order to take care of the children or adults who need her 24/7 attention. How do I know all this? Because I was a caregiver to my elderly parents, both when they lived with me and afterwards, when they moved into assisted living.
MY CAREGIVING EXPERIENCE
The first few years they lived with me, my parents were still relatively independent—though they depended on me financially and were emotionally, highly dependent on me. That was stressful enough, and then things started to go downhill. My dad, who is legally blind with macular degeneration, slipped and fell several times, one time fracturing a vertebra. My mother started showing signs of forgetfulness—once she left a bathroom fan on all night, and nearly set the attic of my house on fire. I found myself keeping an eye on her when she prepared meals for herself and my dad, as I was afraid she’d leave a burner on unattended. When she had two minor car accidents in a row, I started doing all the driving for the family. Soon thereafter, it became obvious that caring for them, working three teaching jobs, freelance writing, working on my PhD and trying to keep up my mortgage payments was altogether more than I could handle.
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Fast forward a few years to this fall, when my parents came to stay with me, my husband and infant daughter for a month. They required constant care. They needed help dressing, eating, going to the bathroom and taking their medication. I prepared all their meals, sorted their meds, took them to the bathroom, helped them clean themselves, and then got them changed into pajamas and tucked in at night. I slept with one eye open every night, for fear my father would wake up, wander, and fall down—which he did, three times. My mother had frequent asthma attacks and I had to keep her calm and medicated. I neglected my husband and my baby to care for my parents. I cried to my husband at least a half a dozen times that month, out of stress, but also out of heartbreak and despair to find they had declined so much, mentally and physically.
And this was only for a month! Imagine a life of this, 24/7, with no breaks. That’s what the majority of at-home caregivers face, with no hope of reprieve, other than the death of an elderly loved one, which no one ever really hopes for.
HOW YOU CAN HELP OTHERS
So this month and year round, remember your friend, neighbor or family member who is caring for a loved one in her home—whether it’s one or both of her parents, a disabled child or adult, or a soldier- husband with severe PTSD. And try to help her, at least once a month, in one or more of the following ways
Give her a break. Offer to stay with her family member while she goes and gets her nails done, goes for a long walk on the beach, of just gets out of the house for a few hours. It’s just a few hours sacrifice for you, but it will mean a world of difference to the caregiver.
Take her to lunch. And make sure there’s lot of wine! Caregivers give up so much of themselves; just a nice lunch out with plenty of laughter and girl-talk can make her feel like herself again—the version of herself that has other things to think about than getting prescriptions filled and changing adult diapers. If the person she cares for can’t be left alone, find a friend to stay with him or her for a few hours.
Give her a shoulder to lean (or cry) on. Knowing that she can pick up the phone and vent for a few minutes, or even bawl hysterically in frustration and not be condemned or judged for it will mean a lot.
Bring over a meal. Invite yourself over for dinner, and bring dinner! Again, normalcy is the key. Normal people—those not consumed with caring for others—have friends over, they sit and talk and enjoy a meal together. Help her reclaim this little slice of normalcy.
Forgive her neglecting you. Your friend who is a caregiver may not always be the most thoughtful friend to you. She’ll forget your birthday, or forget to ask how your day was when you talk. Please, forgive the oversight, and just tell her how things are going at the office or with your new boyfriend, without her having to remember to ask. She’ll appreciate having something else to talk about other than her caregiving duties.
Help her find help. For years, I dealt with the stress of caring for my parents, and felt there was no way out of my situation. But when I finally felt I couldn’t take any more, I started looking for help and resources. I wish I’d looked sooner. The Veteran’s Administration, Medicare and state Medicaid programs all offer various benefits and services to help place the elderly or disabled in assisted living, or to support in-home care. There are eligibility requirements, but every option is worth investigating. Your local senior center or elder-care agencies can help, too.
I was lucky, in that I was eventually able to find the resources to place my parents in an assisted living facility. I still remember the sigh of relief when I got them moved—it felt like the first deep breath I’d taken in years. In assisted living, they are well looked after and cared for by a professional, compassionate staff. But, again, I was lucky. I was able to shift them to a caregiving arrangement that gave them security and gave me freedom to live my life. The majority of caregivers are not so fortunate. But hopefully, they’ve got a friend, sister or co-worker who understands what they’re going through, and offers to lend a helping hand.