While people who require familial care obviously need assistance, those who provide such care also need help and support. According to Syosset, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization caringforthecaregiver.org, at least one person in 30 percent of United States homes is a caregiver -- 34 million people in the United States all together. The person receiving the care can be old or young; the disability may be temporary or permanent. Often, adults are caring for an aging parent who may be struggling with Alzheimer's disease or another terminal condition.
We asked Geri Lehnardt, case manager and caregiver program coordinator at the Mountainland Association of Government's Aging and Family Services, for tips caregivers can use as they face everyday challenges. Mountainland Aging and Family Services serves Wasatch, Summit and Utah counties, and manages familiar government services such as Meals on Wheels. In addition to her 15 years of professional experience, Lehnardt also has been a caregiver for her mother, grandfather and two aunts.
1 Know when to take a break. Caregivers typically don't take enough time for themselves, which leads to burnout. Lehnardt says it's essential to recognize the warning signs of burnout. "Caregivers need to analyze what is different since giving care," she says. You may need outside assistance if the following statements usually or often apply: "I can't get enough rest," "I don't have enough time for myself," "I don't have time to be with other family members" and "I feel guilty about my situation."
2 Don't feel guilty. Lehnardt says it's common for caregivers to feel guilty because even though they are helping someone they love, they may resent their situation. "This can be difficult to overcome because a caregiver is focused on her loved one's needs while disregarding her own," she says.
Lehnardt says one of the keys to coping with guilt or negative feelings is to get involved in a support group. "Talking with other caregivers helps them realize it's OK to take time out for themselves. It's not selfish, but a basic need. Sometimes, it's about letting go of the need to be the only one who is there for his loved one and letting others step in a little or a lot to help."
3 You're not alone. Lehnardt says it can be difficult for caregivers to admit they need help. "A caregiver can learn more from someone who has gone through a similar experience than she can from a book or brochure," she says. Mountainland Aging and Family Services has numerous resources to help caregivers (contact them at (801) 229-3804 or visit www.mountainland.org). The organization has a resource directory for senior citizens in Utah, Wasatch and Summit counties, as well as programs that help cover the costs of some of the services. Lehnardt also recommends caregivers contact home health agencies, assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities, and personal care agencies to learn more about the services that can be provided and the costs.
4 Explore respite care options. Respite care is short-term care given to someone needing care by another caregiver, so that the primary caregiver can take time off. "Respite comes in many forms: formal overnight services, adult day services, in-home respite," Lehnardt says. "Informal services are also very useful, as other family members, friends, neighbors and church members help out."
5 Educate yourself. Looking after a parent or other loved one who has Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia can be especially difficult. Lehnardt describes Alzheimer's as an ever-changing disease. "The person who used to be able to do basic, everyday things can no longer do them. Personalities often change as well. Behaviors may develop that are distressing. Education is power," she says. "Sometimes it is difficult to learn about what may happen to your loved one, but it is very helpful in adjusting to all of the changes. The Alzheimer's Association has numerous materials to help caregivers." Visit www.alz.org.
6 Be realistic and prepared. Medical situations that make care necessary often mean entire lifestyles will have to change. "Our caregiver support groups talk a lot about letting go of expectations of keeping things the same. People have to change traditions and accept things the way they are, and enjoy what they can with their loved one," Lehnardt says. "Caregivers have to take in the sweet moments and look at what is good in their situation."