Family caregivers represent more than one in five Americans, and that number continues to grow as the population increases and more people are diagnosed with debilitating disorders that require daily care. In Idaho, there are more than 300,000 caregivers, with 70 percent also working full- or part-time jobs while providing that care.
What is a family caregiver?
Family caregivers can be relatives or chosen family who provide care to people of any age, and sometimes provide care to multiple people at the same time.
Most people have either been caregivers, are now caregivers, will be caregivers, or will come to rely on a caregiver in the future. However, many caregivers don’t know that what they are doing has a name, or that the care they provide is of value.
Caregiving has clear benefits, but it can be taxing for people giving care. According to a 2020 report published by the AARP Public Policy Institute, caregivers are in worse health today than they were just seven years ago.
In Idaho 73.7 percent of caregivers reported having chronic health conditions, and 30.8 percent reported being depressed. While many caregivers find providing care rewarding, they can experience a phenomenon called “caregiver stress,” which results from the many tasks and responsibilities taken on when they provide care.
November is National Caregivers Month and an opportunity to talk about some realistic ways caregivers can care for themselves. Below are nine important tips.
Seek support from other caregivers
Caregiving can be an isolating experience, but Caregivers don’t have to do it alone. Being able to talk with others who understand what caregivers are going through reduces stress, validates experiences, and gives connection and support.
There are a number of groups and organizations that support caregivers by offering a range of services and creating community and support groups.
The Idaho Caregiver Alliance’s resource page is a great resource where caregivers can find contact information for a variety of caregiver groups: https://idahocaregiveralliance.com/resource-library/
Take care of your own health
Self-care is not selfish. Caregivers need to pay attention to physical and emotional symptoms that can affect their own health and wellbeing. Guarding against burnout and exhaustion increases the caregiver’s ability to ward off illness and provide quality to the care recipient.
Try to create balance between caring for others and caring for you. You can do this by:
- Get regular check-ups and don’t ignore the signs of illness
- Take a break from caregiving
- Get exercise
- Get a flu shot
- Watch for signs of depression
- Laugh with a friend
- Take a daily vitamin supplement
To build a personalized caregiver plan reach out to the Idaho Family Caregiver Navigator Project: https://caregivernavigator.org/
Accept help and suggest specific things people can do to help
Caring for another person requires a significant investment of time and emotion, and that can eat into your responsibilities and peace of mind.
Some people have a hard time admitting they need help. They feel guilty thinking they can’t juggle everything themselves, or they believe no one else can do their job as well as they can. They forget that the totality of caregiving is made up of lots of individual tasks, not all of which are the same importance, or require the same skills.
Make a list of your responsibilities and categorize them, then ask for help with the list in hand so others can easily identify how to pitch in. Without clear communication, family members or friends may perceive that you have everything under control and don’t want to offend you or step on your toes. Others may need you to delegate specific tasks.
More tips about how to ask for help: https://www.caregiveraction.org/defining-help-you-need
Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a class offered in person or virtually across Idaho. It can help caregivers build the skill of delegation and accepting help: https://www.agingstrong.org/
Learn how to communicate effectively with doctors
Caregivers serve as a vital member of the healthcare team. If there are things getting in the way of you providing quality care to the person you are caring for, talk to their healthcare provider and develop a plan about how to improve the situation.
Remember, the federal law that protects the privacy of healthcare information, called HIPAA, does not prevent a healthcare provider from listening to a caregiver or receiving information from a caregiver regarding the patient’s history, treatment, or symptoms.
Additional resources about how to communicate with medical professionals: https://www.caregiveraction.org/resources/how-talk-your-doctor
Caregiving is hard work so take respite breaks often
Replenishing reserves is an important skill when learning how to effectively care for another. Respite care may be planned or emergency, in-home or elsewhere, for a few hours or a few weeks. The purpose, however, remains the same, and that is to rest, recharge, and remember that there’s life beyond caregiving.
More information about respite: https://idahocaregiveralliance.com/resource-library/
Watch out for signs of depression
Some signs of depression include:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and other loved ones
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling down, irritable, or helpless
- Changes in appetite, weight, or both
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
Many caregivers whose lives have been radically and unexpectedly changed by caring for a loved one who is ill or disabled slip into a depressive state, but they don’t have to live under a dark cloud. Depression is an illness that can be managed.
If you’re feeling depressed and it is impairing your life and the care you provide, the first and most important step is to seek help. Simply telling a friend or family member about one’s feelings or making a list of all the things that seem off can start the process, and be a catalyst to getting the care you need and deserve.
For more about caregivers struggling with depression: https://www.caregiveraction.org/caregivers-and-depression
Organize medical information
One of the most important things a caregiver can do is create and maintain a comprehensive medical file about the person they’re caring for. Whether paper, electronic, or both, the information should be easy to update and share.
For a list of items to consider putting in the medical file: https://www.caregiveraction.org/patient-file-checklist
Make sure legal documents are in order
Similar to maintaining a medical file, caregivers should also organize and maintain a file of legal documents that includes information about maintaining a loved one’s finances or legal affairs. This may include power of attorney, living will, bills, deeds, stock and bond statements, and so-on.
Give yourself credit for doing the best you can in one of the toughest jobs there is
Last but far from least, caregivers should pause and give themselves credit for doing one of the most challenging jobs there is. People understand you’re not doing it for credit, but you deserve a moment of gratitude.
Caregivers contribute to the fabric of communities and society at large. Resilient communities are comprised of people who can rely on each other, and caregivers should learn to rely on one another and remember to care for themselves, as well as care for their care recipient.
Although November is National Family Caregivers Month, I want you to know that I am continuously grateful for the time, energy, and care you give to keep our Idahoans safe and loved.
Tiffany Robb is health program manager for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias in the Division of Public Health.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.