Sixty-six million people in the United States are currently caring for loved ones who suffer from a variety of conditions ranging from dementia to paralysis. These caregivers average 20.4 hours per week, and often work full-time jobs on top of that.
“The untold story here is the impact on caregivers,” says Michael Turner, owner and general manager of Senior Helpers, an organization that offers in-home senior assistance services such as companion care and surgery assistance.
Turner spoke at Weiss earlier this month along with Amie Hyman, owner and executive director of Heartfelt Solutions for Seniors—a health advocacy organization that assists people with health, financial and personal management issues. Turner and Hyman explained the delicate relationship between caregivers and their loved ones, and outlined steps caregivers can take to protect their own health and well-being.
Seventeen percent of caregivers report that their health is worse as a result of care giving. After five or more years of care giving, 23 percent report their health as fair of poor. The time and energy involved takes a toll on the caregiver, often leaving him or her with little time to take care of themselves.
“Unfortunately, the relationship between you and your loved one begins to decline. You don’t have your own life anymore,” Hyman says.
Dementia is one of the most common reasons people require a caregiver, yet those afflicted often resist asking for the help they need. “As we age, we tend to conceal the issues bothering us. We don’t want to be a burden or lose independence,” Turner says.
Warning signs of dementia include:
- Physical or emotional decline such as depression, isolation, insomnia, poor hygiene and weight loss
- Unpaid bills or financial mistakes
- House clutter, disrepair or situations that appear unsafe (i.e. papers or spilled liquids left on the floor that the person may slip on)
- Difficulty with daily tasks
- Resistance to maintaining environment
- Short term memory loss
- Getting lost
- Medication mistakes
So what can a caregiver do to make the process easier?
First, learn the family medical history. Then consult a doctor. “You can advocate for your loved one, help develop a care plan,” Turner says. During the consultation, if the doctor begins to speak too quickly or fails to explain something in depth, the caregiver as advocate can ask him to slow down and expand.
The doctor may recommend medications, or the loved one may already have a regimen that he takes daily. “Seniors make up 13 percent of the population, but they consume 40 percent of all prescription drugs,” Hyman says. Caregivers can help by overseeing those medications to ensure that their loved one does not mix up or forget to take pills.
Caregivers can also set up their loved one with an emergency response device—something that the loved one can use to contact the police or ambulance if he falls or needs assistance. To prevent falls, the caregiver can research home safety improvements.
Despite everything the caregiver can do for the loved one, she first must make sure to take care of herself. Turner and Hyman recommend a few steps:
- Ask for help
- Join a support group
- Consult a licensed professional
- Consider in-home care or an assisted living facility for the loved one
- Keep a log or journal
- Participate in outside activities
- Have a plan and follow it
- Exercise, eat better and drink less (alcohol, caffeine)
- Take breaks
“And keep your brain going,” Hyman adds. “You can’t take care of your loved one if you’re neglecting yourself.”