November is National Family Caregiver Month, a month dedicated to providing support and raising awareness for the 66 million Americans who are providing care for ill, disabled or aging relatives.
If you are caring for a senior loved one in Michigan, you know that this job can be both rewarding and demanding. But you may not be aware that helping an older adult with daily-living tasks could be taking a serious toll on your health and relationships.
Caregiving can be harmful to your health
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, family caregivers report more health issues and seem to suffer from a lowered immunity. About 10 % report that assisting a loved one with hygiene, meals, medications, errands and housecleaning has caused their own health to decline. A stunning 40-70% of caregivers report symptoms of depression.
Most family caregivers devote about 20 hours a week to their loved ones in need. Research shows that adults who spend more than a few hours a week caring for others are more likely to suffer from physical illness and mental strain. They are also less likely to visit a doctor, to exercise and to eat a balanced diet.
But there is good news. Studies confirm that that education, access to resources and community support can relieve a lot of the stress and strain of caring for an aging parent, whether they are in the home or in an assisted-living community.
Resources for healthy caregiving
These websites can help you locate the information, resources and services that will support you as a caregiver.
- AARP Home and Family Caregiving: An educational resource where caregivers can learn strategies for juggling work and caregiving, dealing with stress and living healthier lives. This is also home to a busy online community where you can talk with other caregivers and ask experts for advice.
- The Alzheimer’s Association Caregiver Center: If you are providing Alzheimer’s or dementia care, this is a great resource for support. You can talk to others in the caregiver discussion boards and access materials that may ease your caregiving duties. This website also offers a Community Resource Finder that can help you locate events, services and support options in the Great Lakes State.
- Michigan Aging and Adult Services: These government agency websites offer links to educational resources, support groups and workshops that can make caregiving less stressful. You can also find information about adult-day care and enrichment programs, assistance with in-home care and services like home-delivered meals.
- The National Caregiver’s Library: A storehouse of information covering every aspect of caregiving. This helpful resource includes a section dedicated to educating employers of caregivers.
- Video Caregiving: An online library of informative mini-documentaries where people share their stories and offer informative tips to support caregivers.
Please help us spread the word about National Family Caregiving Month by sharing this article with your personal network of family and friends!
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Family caregivers have a stressful and demanding role. Largely made up of women who work at least part-time and who care for children of their own, the demands on their time are often impossible to manage. While a support group seems like the obvious choice to helping them to better cope, finding the time to attend a meeting may create even more stress. Online caregiver support groups can be a solution.
Why are support groups helpful to caregivers and what sites offer online forums?
The Mayo Clinic tackled the first of these two questions. They found that:
- Sharing feelings with those who are walking their same path is by far the biggest advantage. The moral support and understanding peer groups offer can help relieve guilt, fear and anxiety that often accompany caregiving.
- Online support groups offer the advantage of anonymity. It gives caregivers an outlet for talking honestly about their feelings. If a caregiver is feeling guilty for snapping at a loved one with dementia when they ask the same question over and over and over, they will no doubt find people in the group who have had that experience.
- Online communities allow participants to join in when they can. That is a huge advantage for overwhelmed caregivers. They can jump online at midnight after their loved one has fallen asleep or over lunch at their desk.
How can a caregiver find an online support groups?
There are a variety of organizations that help to connect family caregivers with an online support group that meets their unique needs. Here are just a few to consider:
If you are Michigan caregiver and you prefer an in-person support group, we invite you to contact the Heritage Senior Community nearest you for more information.
The number of people living with a chronic health condition is on the rise in this country. While much of it can be attributed to baby boomers growing older, it’s more widespread than that. Experts believe poor nutrition and a lack of exercise in younger people is causing rates of chronic illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes, to climb.
Medical professionals are also becoming more adept at identifying autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis. Each of these is also considered a chronic illness. It all adds up to a startling number of people left trying to navigate daily life with a protracted disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six in ten adults in this country live with a chronic health condition. Four in ten of them have two or more.
So, what does it take for a medical issue to be considered chronic and what are the common symptoms? We’ll explore both along with how to manage the stress that frequently results from trying to juggle daily life with a serious, ongoing health issue.
What Is Considered a Chronic Health Condition?
A medical problem is considered chronic if it lasts more than one year and causes functional or lifestyle restrictions or requires ongoing monitoring or treatment. As a category, they are among the most prevalent and costly health conditions in the United States. They are also the leading cause of death and disability.
Symptoms commonly associated with a long-term illness include:
It’s important to know that the last one, stress, can exacerbate the others. While anxiety and nervousness are recognizable signs of stress, people aren’t aware of other symptoms linked to it. Those can include irritability, stomachaches, sleep problems, and a loss of interest in friends and favorite hobbies.
By learning how to manage stress within the context of a chronic disease, people might be able to reduce their symptoms and suffering.
Overcoming Stress Associated with Chronic Disease
The type of illness a person is living with can inhibit their ability to try some of the following suggestions. However, most people will find a few to be useful:
- Join an in-person or online support group: Connecting with peers who can understand and sympathize is one of the best ways to manage stress. If you are able, meeting others in person offers the added benefits of socializing and getting out of the house. For those whose illness prevents that, there are a variety of virtual options. You might want to first explore those offered by organizations dedicated to your specific illness. If that’s not possible, you might find the Center for Chronic Illness support groups to be a good resource.
- Avoid alcohol and other unhealthy behaviors: When you are in pain or feeling down, it’s easy to develop unhealthy behaviors that seem like they help. It might be a few glasses of wine a day or overindulging in sugary treats. Sometimes it’s starting to smoke or increasing the amount of cigarettes you smoke in a day. While these might offer temporary relief, in the long run it will only make things worse. Be mindful of any habits you’ve picked up that might work against you.
- Try to eat as healthily as possible: This suggestion usually helps you gain more energy and even sleep better. Instead of considering healthy eating a diet, think of it as a lifestyle modification. A Mediterranean meal plan, for example, is linked to lower rates of disease. It focuses on fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein. If your health condition makes it tough to prepare these types of meals and snacks for yourself, consider subscribing to a home delivery service that offers these kinds of prepared meals. Purple Carrot and Green Chef are two popular examples.
- Learn to practice meditation: Though people often associate meditation with sitting on the floor with your legs crossed, the reality is much more accommodating. You can even practice it from your favorite spot on the sofa. An added benefit is that growing evidence shows meditation might help protect cognitive health. Watch “Mindfulness Meditation for People with Disabilities” to learn more.
- Find physical exercises you can engage in: Depending upon what your chronic health condition allows, mild to moderate forms of exercise might also reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety. Whether it is a simple walk, a swim, chair yoga, or seated aerobics, talk to your physician for input and advice.
Art and Music Activities at Heritage Senior Communities
Our final suggestion is a popular part of daily life in our communities. Explore different types of art projects and music. Research shows that both offer therapeutic benefits including reducing stress and boosting mood. Click on the Events tab in the link for the community nearest you to view a copy of the monthly activities calendar!
I recently returned home to Michigan from New York to help care for my parents. While I live close to them, we’re not in the same house. They both have different health concerns and need someone to oversee their care and household tasks.
My employer allows me to work remotely, but I still put in a lot of hours each week. I’m really struggling to get organized. Do you have any suggestions to help a new caregiver like me? I’m really overwhelmed.
Chris in Grand Haven, MI
Organizational Tips for New Family Caregivers
Assuming the role of family caregiver is a big undertaking. When you factor in your relocation and busy job, it’s easy to see why you are struggling. Here are some suggestions I hope will be beneficial:
- Accept that you will need help.
Adult children often believe they should be able to manage their aging parents’ support on their own. Very rarely is this realistic. As you take on this new role, recognize that you will need to ask for and accept help. That support might come in many forms.
It could be asking a friend or family member to stay with your parents for an hour or two while you relax and see a movie or have your hair done. You could also ask a friend to pick up a few groceries or drop off dinner to your parents.
- Organize caregiving details.
Many adult children say they feel an extraordinary amount of stress when they first step into the caregiving role. They may worry they won’t do a good job or fear they will overlook important appointments or tasks. Getting organized can help relieve some of that anxiety.
Begin by blocking out time to set up a system. Sort and organize your parents’ important health care paperwork and legal documents. If you need to, ask a friend or family member to sit with your parents so you can have this uninterrupted time.
Organize their paperwork in a binder by topic or date (e.g., test results, medication list, and physician contact information). Also check to see if their health care provider has an online portal your parents can access. Taking time to review visit summaries, test results, and other notes can give you a better picture of what’s been happening.
Next, add your parents’ appointments and follow-up tasks to your personal calendar. If there are household tasks that need to be completed, place those on your calendar, too. This helps to avoid double-booking yourself or missing something. Not having to rely on your memory can alleviate some of your stress. Apps like My Medical can make tracking and organizing easier.
- Establish and stick to a routine.
This step may take some time, but having a routine can make caregiving more manageable. Try to cluster errands and appointments on one or two days each week. This will allow you to have uninterrupted blocks of time to work and handle your own needs.
It also requires fewer arrangements for a friend or family member to stay with your loved one. For example, if both parents have dentist appointments, schedule them concurrently. That allows you to make one trip instead of two.
- Connect with a caregiver support group.
Caregivers face unique challenges that others may not understand. It can be very isolating. Having a group of peers who understand and can empathize is usually beneficial to a caregiver’s emotional and physical well-being. Support group members may have specific ideas for juggling work with a caregiving schedule.
Peers can also commiserate with you about the emotional side of caregiving. For example, if you are feeling guilty, resentful, angry, or sad, you’ll likely find people who’ve experienced those emotions too. You can even connect with a support caregiver group online, if that is easier on your schedule.
Finally, follow the oxygen mask advice flight attendants share during their pre-flight safety talk: help yourself before helping others. Caregivers must make good self-care a priority. If you don’t, you’re more likely to experience a medical crisis of your own.
Respite services at assisted living communities may make that possible for you. Your parents can spend a week or so at a community while you take a vacation or just some time off.
I hope this information is helpful to you, Chris!
My dad and I have been my mom’s primary caregivers since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over three years ago. None of us were familiar with the disease or the unique challenges it would present. It’s been a real learning curve.
My dad and I are struggling to cope with a profound sense of loss, even though my mom is still with us. It seems like every day there is another change in Mom or something else she’s no longer able to do for herself. It’s so tough to witness this decline.
Do you have any suggestions for my dad and me? We want to be strong for my mom, but it’s getting more and more difficult.
Alysha in Midland, MI
Tips for Coping When a Loved One Has Alzheimer’s
When a person has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, their family and friends all feel the impact of the diagnosis. Alzheimer’s is frequently referred to as the long goodbye because the disease slowly robs a person of their verbal skills, memory, and independence. Like you and your dad, loved ones of people with Alzheimer’s often say they feel a deep sense of sadness, helplessness, and frustration as the disease progresses.
While the physical demands of caregiving can cause loved ones to feel exhausted, the mental toll can be equally trying. These ideas might be helpful to you and your dad:
- Join a caregiver support group: Caring for someone you love when they have Alzheimer’s is different than caring for those with other types of life-limiting illnesses. Connecting with peers in a similar situation might be beneficial. The understanding and shared experience may bring you and your dad a sense of comfort. Some people might feel more comfortable joining a virtual support group than an in-person meeting. The Alzheimer’s Association has some virtual support group ideas for you to consider.
- Live in the moment: Of all the suggestions listed, this one might be the most beneficial but also the most difficult to carry out. Instead of focusing on what your mom has lost, try to live in the present. Meet your mom where she is in this journey, which can be different every day.
- Take a break: When you are caring for a person with Alzheimer’s, the days can be hectic and stressful. Try to take time for yourself on a regular basis, even if it’s just to have lunch with a friend or take a quick walk.
- Learn to meditate: Many people find that meditation helps bring them inner peace during difficult times. If you haven’t tried it yet, there are a variety of options online for beginners. Watch Beginner’s Guide to Meditation and Guided Meditation for Seniors, Older Adults to get started.
- Try music therapy: Music offers therapeutic value to people of all ages. For people with dementia and their loved ones, it can be a way to connect after communication skills are impaired. Playing happy music might be a way for the three of you to enjoy your time together.
I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you and your dad, Alysha. I’m wishing your family all the best.
Specialized Dementia Care at Heritage Senior Communities
When a senior has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, specialized care can help them live their best quality of life. From our person-centered approach to care to an environment that promotes independence, Heritage Senior Communities are leaders in the field of dementia care. Call the community nearest you to learn more and schedule a personal visit soon!