National Caregiver Month: When people aren’t even aware they are caregivers

By Annette Sandler • JFCS Aging Services Director

Do you help your mom grocery shop? Do you help balance your dad’s checkbook? Then you are a family caregiver. 

A caregiver is an adult who provides unpaid care for the physical and emotional needs of a family member or friend who is ill, disabled or frail, according to the National Family Caregivers Association. November is National Caregiver Month.

Annette Sandler

Only 35% of Americans believe they will ever need long-term care. In reality, over 70% of us will eventually need help after age 65. 

In fact, the vast majority of adults in the U.S. – 78% – receive all of their long-term care at home, and typically from unpaid family and friends – mostly wives and adult daughters. Another 14% of older adults receive some combination of family care and paid help. Only 8% rely on formal care alone. 

The value of the services family caregivers provide for “free” is estimated to be over $375 billion a year, almost twice as much as the $1.58 billion spent on homecare and nursing home series combined. 

Nevertheless, the stress of family caregiving has been shown to increase caregivers’ incidents of depression, impact their immune system for up to three years after the caregiving ends, and increase the chances they will ultimately develop a chronic illness. That’s why mental health professionals stress the importance of caregivers learning to take care of themselves. Until you are able to identify as a caregiver, it is difficult to find the support you need. 

The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Care and Related Disorders and Research at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reminds us that we cannot control the disease process, but we can control many aspects of how it affects us and our loved ones. Rush University Medical Center recommends these steps:

  • Take care of yourself so you can continue doing the things that are most important to you.
  • Simplify your lifestyle so your time and energy are available for things that are really important.
  • Cultivate the gift of allowing others to help you – caring for a person is too big a job for one person.
  • Take it one day at a time, rather than worry about what may happen in the future
  • Structure your day, because a consistent schedule makes life easier.
  • Have a sense of humor, because laughter helps put things in a more positive perspective. According to “The Magic of Humor in Caregiving” by James R. Sherman, Ph.D., laughter can release tension, alleviate stress and offer a defense against depression. It can also help restore the hope and energy needed to survive the realities of a long-term illness.
  • Remember your loved ones are not being “difficult” on purpose. Rather, their behavior and emotions are distorted by the illness.
  • Focus on and enjoy what your relative can still do rather than constantly lament what is gone.
  • Increasingly depend on other relationships for love and support.
  • Frequently remind yourself that you are doing the best you can at this very moment.

If you are a family caregiver, JFCS can help in numerous ways. If you just don’t know what you need or how to get started looking for support, JFCS’ trained staff can provide a Care Plan Consultation. This service helps when families notice changes in parents and/or spouses. During a crisis or before one arises, Care Plan Consultations help families articulate issues and challenges, learn about available resources, and create a plan of care for maximizing independence. 

In addition, if you need ongoing support as a caregiver, JFCS can provide Caregiver Coaching. Our caregiver coaches work with family members to guide them in making changes to improve everyday life at home, either by promoting better self-care or by offering tips to deal with dementia-related behaviors. We can also work directly with people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease to plan for their own future. Coaches provide culturally sensitive services. Russian-speaking coaches are available.

Services are provided on a sliding-fee scale. For more information “Just Call JFCS” at 952-546-0616.