This November is National Family Caregiver Support Month. Even if you are not a family caregiver, you probably know someone who is. Millions of Americans are willing to provide varying support levels to older relatives and even friends. Support can take on many forms, like helping with financial or legal issues. Some family caregivers tend to healthcare management while still others provide care and hands-on assistance with the activities of daily living. These support services and the social connection with family caregivers are especially beneficial during the coronavirus pandemic. It allows older loved ones to remain safely at home and socially engaged.
Right at Home reports that family caregiving demographics are changing as more older adult Americans seek to age in place. However, because of America’s decreasing birthrate, fewer family members are available to help their older relatives. Family caregiver scarcity has increased the number of “sandwich generation” caregivers, those individuals who tend to both older relatives and their minor children, often in the same household. Generally, these caregivers are still in the workplace, and their caregiving role is a second job, making work-life balance a struggle. Increasingly family caregivers are older than 65 and coping with their health challenges while providing care for others. Conversely, more minor children are providing care for their older relatives, particularly those with disabilities.
Whatever the age group or relationship, family caregiving is a labor of love. While the work is often difficult and presents many challenges, studies show it also offers many emotional rewards. A caregiver can often jeopardize their health either through exposure to disease, increased stress levels, or lack of self-care, all of which can lead to degenerating health, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that “Unpaid caregivers for adults, many of whom are currently providing critical aid to persons at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, had a higher incidence of adverse mental and behavioral health conditions with others.”
How can you help those caregivers who help others? Start by being a good listener. Many caretaker hours are spent listening and solving their loved ones’ travails, making the caregiver feel lonely, even isolated, although people surround them. Being in service to others can make a caregiver turn their feelings inward, putting them at risk of depression. Friends may often inquire how a loved one’s condition is but neglect to ask the caregiver, “And how are you today?” Encourage a caregiver to share their feelings and thoughts and then listen.
Beyond asking a caregiver how they are doing, also ask them what they need. Many caregivers will find it difficult to admit or even recognize that they need help. Start by saying, “Tell me how I can help you.” You can offer a small service of your own by providing a meal once a week or picking up groceries or prescription medication. You might have skill sets that would help tremendously, like tax preparation, yard work, or computer assistance. Once you identify a way to help a caregiver, calendar it and show up. Even small acts of kindness are gratefully received.
Remember to express appreciation for what the caregiver is providing to their loved one. Caregiving is often a thankless task, and many may feel taken for granted. Take the time to say, “Thank you. I appreciate you and the kindness you are bestowing on your loved one.” You might even choose to send a treat, a gift certificate, or flowers with a personal note reminding them of their value and decency. It can help lift the mood of a beleaguered caregiver.
Finally, you can identify sources of help for them. Government agencies, businesses and employers, and charitable groups offer many resources to help caregivers. Studies show that navigating the eldercare system is a source of huge stress for caregivers. Finding out about available services, how to access them, and then the effort to monitor and advocate to ensure social and health needs are being met takes a lot of time. Providing pathways for a caregiver can save them much needed time which can be better spent in their paying job or in social activities that offer relief.
Family caregivers are so often appreciative of even the smallest mercies. Any help they receive translates into personal time, which can translate into self-care or paid employment, or perhaps even stop them from spiraling into depression. The American reality is that family caregiving is becoming more necessary than ever. If you are not yet a caregiver, chances are you will be one day. And chances also are that one day you will need care. This November and beyond, honor and support family caregivers in whatever way you can.