"Planning for Eldercare" November 7, 2011
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Debbie turned the ringing alarm off. It was 6:00AM and time to get herself ready for the day. Her son would be there soon to help her shower and dress her husband Jim. Her son came every day before work to help because Debbie, at 75 years old and suffering with arthritis, could not lift Jim out of bed or help him to the shower. This has been the daily routine since Jim’s stroke a year ago. When her son leaves for work, Debbie spends the day caring for Jim’s needs.

President Barack Obama, in his Presidential Proclamation of National Family Caregivers Month -2011 states:

“Across our country, millions of family members, neighbors, and friends provide care and support for their loved ones during times of need. With profound compassion and selflessness, these caregivers sustain American men, women, and children at their most vulnerable moments, and through their devoted acts, they exemplify the best of the American spirit.”

Statistics from the Administration On Aging show that the population 65 and older is expected to grow from its current 13% to 19% of the total population by 2030. With the older population increasing, the need for elder caregiving will continue to increase. Family caregivers play a vital role in filling these caregiving needs. Who better than family can understand the needs and ensure the best care of their loved ones.

Caregiving can be very stressful and demanding. In the case of a healthy spouse or a child living with the disabled person at home, caregiving can be a 24 hour, 7 day a week commitment. But even for the caregiver not living in the home, looking after a loved one or friend can consume all of the caregiver's free time.

Surveys and studies consistently show that depression is a major problem with full-time informal caregivers. This is typically brought on by stress and fatigue as well as social isolation from family and friends. If allowed to go on too long, the caregiver can sometimes break down and may end up needing long term care as well.

A typical pattern may unfold as follows:

1 to 18 months--the caregiver is confident, has everything under control and is coping well. Other friends and family are lending support.

20 to 36 months--the caregiver is taking medication to sleep and control mood swings. Outside help dwindles away and except for trips to the store or doctor, the caregiver has severed most social contacts. The caregiver feels alone and helpless.

38 to 50 months--Besides needing tranquilizers or antidepressants, the caregiver's physical health is beginning to deteriorate.  Lack of focus and sheer fatigue cloud judgment and the caregiver is often unable to make rational decisions or ask for help.  It is often at this stage that family or friends intercede and find other solutions for care.  This may include respite care, hiring home health aides or putting the disabled care recipient in a facility.  Without intervention, the family caregiver may become a candidate for long term care as well.

Since most family members go into informal caregiving without training or counseling, they often aren't aware of the possible outcome described above. It is therefore extremely important to seek counseling and to formulate a plan of action prior to making a caregiving commitment.

According to the National Care Planning Council:

" In 1965, Congress passed the Older Americans Act which provides guidance and funding to the States to give help to caregivers. All states offer programs at no cost or very low cost which might include: counseling, caregiver training, respite care, adult day care, meals, support groups and much, much more. It is vital for the health and longevity of all caregivers to make use of these services." (www.longtermcarelink.net)

In 1994 President Clinton proclaimed a week in November as National Family Caregivers week to be observed with appropriate programs and activities.  It has since been changed to the whole month of November with each President giving a yearly proclamation for its observance.

Government assistance is available all over the country.  Area Agencies on Aging and local senior centers give aid and support to family caregivers.  Numerous religious and community organizations also lend their support.

This month of November 2011, as individuals, we can take note of those around us, in our families and community, who are family caregivers.  A note of acknowledgement of their service, a gift of thanks or even an offering of our time to give them a needed break would let them know their service is recognized and appreciated.