In my last blog, we explored the underappreciated number of caregivers in the US often called “the invisible workforce”. I shared the physical, emotional, and financial impacts that caregiving has on individuals and families. The response was overwhelming and confirmed just how deep of an issue this is for so many families.

Already many of my peers find themselves in the throes of caregiving while still raising their own children. The clock also ticks for me and my husband as his parents are now in their eighties. Like it or not my friends, at some point along this journey in life we are going to be on both ends of this stick. I began to ask myself since we will all face these situations; how can we best prepare ourselves?

I planned to prepare for this just like everything else in my life thus far…buy the book! So, I cruised on down to the library to check out some titles. Are you kidding me…no time for that! Of course I went straight to Amazon and did a really fancy title search on…wait for it…“caregiving”.

Before having my first child I read “What to Expect When You are Expecting” but I hate to break it to you there really is no “What to Expect When You are about to Parent Your Parents “.  Sure, there are a few titles on caregiving, but it pales in comparison to the plethora that exists on parenting!

Notebook in hand (yes people still use paper…sigh) I channeled my inner Lois Lane and set out to get the scoop. I needed to interview someone who works in the trenches of this caregiving world every day. Funny how God just connects you to the right people because it never occurred to me that my interviewee might also be a caregiver herself!

Turns out my insider and her husband are currently caregiving for both of their aging parents. Here we go again, more members of that invisible workforce! Here are some nuggets of wisdom that came to light in my time with my expert as she shared her struggles both as a professional and a caregiver.  I have coupled her wisdom with some actions that may be helpful.

NUGGET: My insider shared that she often sees DENIAL in families regarding the actual mental and health status of their loved one. It is difficult to admit that our loved one is having as much change as they may be experiencing. We may brush it off as, “that happens as people age” or “Mom is not as bad as other people I have seen”.

  • Take Action This makes sense since denial is the first stage of the grieving process. If you suspect any changes in the status mentally or physically of your loved one visit the doctor with them and share your concerns. Early intervention, especially for dementia and Alzheimer’s is critical to quality of life.

NUGGET: In couples they often act as teenage BFFs and will frequently compensate or cover up for the other partner’s declines. My insider shared it is very common after an event that leads to hospitalization that a family will realize just how much their loved one has declined.

  • Take Action These behaviors are often rooted in fear. The most common: fear of the unknown, fear of separation, or fear of having to move into living residences. Communication is the key to this issue. Talk with your loved ones before a health decline and discuss how they would like their care plan to go. Reassure them that every attempt will be made to honor their care plan wishes. Explore what situations may dictate that these wishes cannot be carried out. This will help lessen the anxiety for all involved and allow for more open communication about their health status.

NUGGET: Often caregivers wind up dying before the person they are caring for due to the impact of caregiving. Many put off going to the doctor or taking care of themselves because they are so busy caring for the other person. Often, they are just sick of sitting in medical facilities! 

  • Take Action Make the time to go to your regular checkups and take care of yourself. You will not be around to care for your loved one if you do not take care of yourself. Use respite care services to care for your loved one so you can have breaks to take care of your needs. Many assisted living facilities offer respite services from a week to up to a month.

NUGGET: As we age our social support circle really dwindles. When we are younger, most of us have family and a support system of friends. When you have a baby or illness in the younger years you have people to bring meals, share in the care and lend a listening ear. Due to illness and death, that support system becomes less.

  • Take Action:  Ask for help!  Reach out to extended family, friends or faith family and ask for help. If you are still coming up empty, ask your healthcare provider about local resources. This is no time for the pride monster!

NUGGET: Most people enter an assisted living facility after a 911 event such as a fall or a rapid decline in health. Her advice is for the family to tour different facilities before the need to use one occurs. Also, once a patient hits a certain decline, some types of facilities will be unable to take the patient. Learn early on what the window of care time is for each facility.

  • Take Action Explore what facilities are out there before crisis time hits and make a family plan. This AINT your grandma’s old folks home! The face of today’s assisted living residencies are very vast. Most people have an image in their mind, yet they have not been in a home in years. There is also a false belief that once people go to facilities, their health will quickly decline. However, some patients improve due to access to more consistent services, medications are given at regular intervals and there are “fresh “people coming on shift each day.

NUGGET: We often associate loneliness with the caregiver, therefore socialization for the care receiver is often overlooked. Especially if the caregiver is a different generation such as a child versus spouse. My insider has seen large gains in people once they enter assisted living and reconnect with people in their own generation.

  • Take action Sometimes in the blur of day to day tasks of caregiving, the person being cared for can become lost. Remember that the quality of life and needs of the one being cared for must also be recognized and sometimes this may conflict with what the caregiver feels is the best solution.

How to Support a Caregiver

If you are not currently in this situation, I challenge you to Adopt a Caregiver or two! Find someone you know in your family, neighborhood, community or church and help lighten their load. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Encouragement: Send cards or texts. These will make them feel less isolated and connected to the outside world.

Run errands: There can be so many appointments and other tasks that running another errand can just be overwhelming. Pick up groceries, medications, adult hygiene supplies, etc

Tasks: Offer to do things at their home from cleaning to yard work.

Food: A meal can be a lifesaver but make sure that it is something than can be frozen if they are not ready to eat it right away.

Breaks: Encourage the caregiver to take breaks and offer to sit with the person if level of care permits.

Listen: Allowing the person to share their frustrations and stress can go along way!

Keep asking and inviting:  Even when the person has turned down invites for months, keep asking. This will make them feel included and eventually they may take you up on it!

As I imagine myself aging, I like to think I will be like Sophia from the Golden Girls.  My kids already know that Mama expects to be put into a “nice home” complete with a private pool cabana!  But, however that turns out, no matter my situation, I pray I will experience care provided with dignity, compassion, and love.

The cycle of life can be such a beautiful dance when we all participate. Today while you are able, offer support to those who need it. There will come a day, sooner than we would like, where we will be on the other side of that proverbial stick. The thought “You Get What You Give” comes to mind.

As always, until next time may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.

Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. Like Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC

The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255