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Ask the Expert: Health of caregivers sometimes forgotten

Caregivers sometimes get so involved in taking care of their sick loved ones that their own health can fall by the wayside. But it’s important for caregivers not to forget their own health. A sick caregiver can’t provide proper care to someone else.

Reba Cornman, director of the Geriatrics and Gerontology Education and Research Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, offers caregivers tips on how to stay healthy.

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What is caregiving and what are some of the stresses that caregivers face?

Caregiving for family members, partners and friends is a big responsibility with an ever changing array of situations and responsibilities to consider and embrace. We are not born knowing what to do. Whether it be a spouse, partner, parent, child or friend it may happen suddenly or an illness may slowly change over time and with that the demands of caregiving.

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Caring for someone who is on a physical and/or cognitive decline can be both physically and emotionally challenging for the designated caregiver. The caregiver must manage the details of diagnoses, medication management, medical treatments and appointments, transportation, home safety and finances among the many issues associated with caregiving.

Caregiving can happen at any time of life. Children as well as older adults may be handed this responsibility. The challenge is balancing school, work and family responsibilities with the day-to-day issues of the illness that someone you love is experiencing.

What are some signs that a caregiver is burnt out?

Physical and emotional fatigue, poor sleeping, poor nutrition, not caring for their own health needs, anger, feelings of hopelessness, isolation, despair, increased use of alcohol may be signs of caregiver burnout.

How can a caregiver prevent burn out and manage stress?

The caregiver is the most important person because without the health and well being of that person, the person who is cared for will be at great risk. The caregiver has to be realistic about their own capacity to care for someone safely at home. Safety means physical safety for both the caregiver and the person receiving care. Caregivers need to communicate with health providers about what are the home issues involved with caregiving.

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Asking for help from family and friends can be a hard task and one many people are not comfortable with. Friends and other family members could offer to give the caregiver a break at certain times because scheduled time off is a gift and can be the greatest gift for the caregiver. Take some personal time for yourself every day. See your doctor and let them know about your responsibilities. The American Medical Association recently published a pamphlet entitled, “Caring for the Caregiver: A Guide for Physicians,” which outlines issues regarding support for the caregiver and the signs of caregiver burnout.

How can a caregiver get information and training about caregiving?

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There are a number of ways that caregivers can get information about what to do for the many different responsibilities that might come their way. First, each state has an agency on aging. In Maryland, it is the Maryland Department of Aging, which oversees The Maryland Family Caregiver Support Program. In addition, each county has an Area Agency on Aging, which will have online and call-in information for older adults and caregivers. In addition, there are many caregiver conferences sponsored throughout the state by the area agencies on aging, which look at the many issues involved with caregiving. These are great opportunities to attend presentations by experts but also to learn about services available to help caregivers and their families.

The National Institute on Aging has an excellent library of literature as well as information about a variety of health-related issues. These pamphlets and books can be read online, downloaded and in some cases ordered. In addition, there is online information and training available through AARP about nursing-related interventions, which may fall to the caregiver. The Alzheimer’s Association and other nonprofits have information that focuses on specific ailments, such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. The important thing to remember is to go to a reliable source of information and not a for-profit entity selling products.

In addition, the local area agencies on aging, Alzheimer’s Association and other organizations sponsor caregiver support groups. This is an important opportunity for caregivers to commiserate with others going through similar situations and also network and learn about services and ways of approaching the challenges of caregiving — emotionally, physically and in getting services to assist in care.

If a caregiver also works a job what are some tips for balancing both?

It will help to familiarize yourself with not only the services available to the person you care for, but also to familiarize yourself with any supports your place of work might offer. This can be through Employee Assistance Programs for help dealing with the stress and perhaps depression associated with caregiving. Also familiarize yourself with the Family Medical Leave Act so you know your rights when it comes to taking time off for work to care for someone. It is important to concentrate on your job despite what’s going on at home. Caregivers need to take a break, so make lunch hours count. Take a walk, talk with friends/co-workers. Chances are there are many people going through the same thing. Some workplaces might even provide a caregiver support group.


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