According to the latest statistics from the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are about 44 million Americans providing care to a loved one over age 50 with a chronic illness, a physical or mental disability, or who is just "aging in place."
Sixty-eight percent of these caregivers are women. While women are the nurturers in our society – giving love, caring and support to those around them – they often ignore their own needs when they become a caregiver. Typically a crisis event – whether it's a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, a fall which results in a broken hip, or a heart attack requiring hospitalization – thrusts us into this caregiving role. We’re unprepared, lack the time or knowledge to perform this role, and often wind up feeling all alone as we embark on this caregiving journey.
If caregiving is a journey we'll all be on, then knowing a little bit about how to "speak" the caregiving language will help us all have a safer, saner trip. In other words, let’s take a cue from our Boy Scouts and “Be Prepared.” Here's a few tips on how to start to plan ahead – I call this the "C-A-R-E" plan:
C = Create a conversation around caregiving. So many caregivers tell me it's hard to have a conversation with a relatively "well" older parent about their long-term care plans. Try starting with either a personal story or recent news. Maybe a friend of yours has recently started caring for her dad with Parkinson’s, or you read an article on elder care.
This will spark dialogue on a less personal level and allow your parent to give their opinion. Once the conversation gets going, you can start to ask more pertinent, personal questions relating to your family and planning for long-term care and even end-of-life issues.
A = Acknowledge your loved one's wishes. There is a great document called "The Five Wishes" from Aging With Dignity which helps seniors and caregivers start the conversation about what they want to have happen as their physical and mental capacities may fade.
What is important is to ensure your parent that you want to do what is best for them – so by having this conversation now, rather than being in a crisis when a sudden illness or other event forces the issue, you will be better equipped to help them when the time comes.
R = Review what is already planned. Ask your loved one if they have a long-term-care (LTC) policy, legal documentation such as Powers of Attorney or Health Care Directives already set up, Wills, etc. Make sure you know what is covered, and more importantly, what may not be covered. And, find out where these documents exist.
E = Engage the whole family. While you might be the one to take the initiative of starting the caregiving conversation, especially if you feel you will become the primary caregiver, you want to ensure you include any siblings, your other parent, or even your own family (spouse and older children), in the caregiving plan around your loved one.
This helps everyone prepare for their role and will help ensure you – as the primary caregiver – do not become burned out or bankrupt when you take on caregiving. After all, caregiving includes caring for yourself. By planning ahead you'll avoid a lot of stress and strife later.
Given the many crucial issues surrounding the physical, mental, emotional, and lifestyle demands associated with caregiving, it’s important for families to be aware of where to go for answers, support, and encouragement.
Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer's Disease: A Guide for the Home Caregiver
by Peter Rabins, M.D., MPH, and Ann Morrison, RN, Ph.D.