MetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources for Seniors, is coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, and brings together leaders from Greater MetroWest agencies to promote independence and support vitality among older adults. Each month, a MetroWest CARES agency has an opportunity to address a critical eldercare issue. This month’s column on caregivers is presented by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ. JFS provides services to assist older adults and their families cope with the complexities of the aging process.
In 1963, only 17 million Americans lived to 65 years of age. In 2011, the first of the 78 million baby boomers (those born 1946-1964) turned 65. It is projected that the number of older Americans will reach 71 million by 2030 (when all baby boomers have reached 65 years of age) and 88.5 million by 2050. The coming decades will not only see a significant increase in the aging population, but a growing need for family caregivers.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, there are 65.7 million caregivers in the United States, of which 43.5 million work with someone 50 years of age or older. On average, caregivers spend 21 hours a week at the job, with those that live with their care recipient providing 39.3 hours per week.
Although these unpaid family caregivers play an important role and make many contributions, it often comes at a considerable cost to themselves. Caregiving can be a long and often overwhelming journey, impacting a caregiver’s physical health, mental health, employment, social relationships, family relationships, and overall quality of life. It is estimated that families provide between 80 to 90 percent of the overall long-term care to older Americans, including helping with activities of daily living tasks (dressing, feeding, grooming), monitoring medications, laundry, housekeeping, emotional support, transportation, shopping, etc. All the ensuing pressure and stress can lead to a condition called “caregiver burnout.” To prevent this problem, one needs to know how to identify the warning signs and manage the stress. Stress can manifest itself emotionally, physically, and/or cognitively.
• Emotional warning signs include anger, loss of interest in hobbies, increasingly impatience and irritability, frequent crying or tearfulness, mood swings, and chronic anxiety.
• Physical warning signs include tension headaches, problems with sleep, chronic back pain, teeth grinding, chronic fatigue, and weight gain or loss.
• Cognitive warning signs include obsessive thinking, short term memory loss, decreased concentration, limited attention span, and difficulty in making decisions.
Stress can impact the caregiver’s well-being as well as the ability to provide care. Although we cannot always avoid the circumstances that cause stress, finding ways to reduce caregiver stress will help lessen the toll caregiving has on an individual. Remember that caring for yourself is not selfish; managing your own stress is just as important as managing your loved one.
Tips for managing stress include:
Exercise can keep your circulation going, relieve stress, and enhance your mood. Even 15 minutes of walking or stretching can be enough. Try to get in the routine of doing a physical activity every day. When your body is fit, it can manage stress better.
• Make time for yourself
Setting aside some time for yourself may seem impossible, but it is necessary to recharge your own batteries. Do what you enjoy — reading, gardening, going for a walk, or knitting for example. Use relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
• Don’t ignore your feelings and emotions
Pay attention to your own feelings and emotions and recognize when to get help. If needed, speak with a trusted friend or family member or seek professional counseling. Feelings such as anger and frustration are normal and do not mean you are a bad person.
• Keep on top of your own health
Don’t forget about your own doctor appointments. It is very easy to forget about your own health; however, you need to be healthy so you can be there for your loved one. Stop or don’t start smoking; don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce your stress.
• Get enough sleep
Your body needs enough rest and sleep to recover from the daily stressors. When you don’t have enough sleep, your mood and energy level will suffer.
• Eat well
Nourish your body with foods that will help maintain your energy level such as whole grains, lean protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Stay hydrated; drink six to eight glasses of water a day. Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake.
• Ask for help
Don’t try to do it all alone. Seek and accept the support of others. Enlist friends and family to help. Divide up caregiving responsibilities. Be willing to give up some control and delegate.
• Maintain or increase socialization
It is very easy to become isolated, especially the longer we provide care. Stay involved. Maintain or start up a hobby or outside interest. If you can’t get out to socialize, talk on the phone or use your computer or other technology to communicate with others. Staying social is an important part of maintaining emotional well-being.
• Join a support group
A caregiver support group cannot only provide support for you but you may be able to provide support for others. Connecting with other caregivers can be invaluable and can reduce feelings of frustration, stress, and isolation.
• Connect with community resources
You don’t have to do it alone. Reach out for help. There are services and programs to help caregivers in the community including individual counseling, caregiver support programs, adult day care centers, home health aides and companion providers, respite care, transportation services, and skilled nursing facilities.