The neighborhood where I have lived for a dozen years has relatively few young families. Most households consist of an elderly single person or couple. One couple in particular has continued to live a fairly active lifestyle, considering their ages. There are the expected age-related issues and occasional illnesses, but they handily execute life’s daily tasks of housekeeping, meals and minor yard work. Driving to the grocery store or the doctor has not become an unreasonable chore for them. On some occasions they take out of town trips to visit relatives. At this point they are doing OK, but I imagine the day will arrive when one becomes dependent and the other tries to manage full-time care of the spouse as well as the household chores.
Caregiving can be a stressful job, one that can call for a person to be on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Many of us can recall some incident where caregiving appeared to take its toll on the caregiver. In some cases, the stress is so extreme that the caregiver dies before the one being cared for.
During the time that I have lived in this neighborhood, age-related changes have become apparent in these neighbors and friends. There are the expected eyeglasses and hearing aids among them. A pacemaker now keeps one’s heart beating properly; a pin in the hip makes it possible for another to walk next door for a visit; a cane assists the evening stroll for another. And as one might expect, a few suffer colds and flu or complain occasionally of aches and pains.
As I observe the lives of those in my neighborhood, the realities of the passage of time are very apparent. I speculate how things will play out as the years advance. It would not be unreasonable to theorize that, as one person in a household becomes less able to care for him/herself, the other will assume the care duties. It is estimated that there are 5 to 7 million individuals caring for loved ones in a family setting.
Research tells us that informal caregivers tend to be female, usually live in the same household as the recipient and, in 30 percent to 55 percent of cases, are employed outside the home. Given that an older adult may need care for many years, one can easily see how the task can become a bewildering chore that often stretches the capabilities and resources of the caregiver. It is estimated that a third of the caregiving population have incomes in the poor or near-poor category. If you link several of these factors together, it is not hard to see how overwhelming caregiving can become.
Visualize, if you can, that you are the lone income earner in the household responsible for all household chores and also are the sole caregiver for another adult in the household. Now imagine the stress and frustration you would endure if you had health problems of your own, little to no assistance with household chores and an income barely sufficient to meet the needs of the household. Stress would have a major impact on your own health.
What can be done to assist people who are caregivers of someone with a long-term or progressive debilitating disease? Often we ask those individuals, "How is your mother (or father, spouse, husband)?" Instead, we might consider asking, "How are things going for YOU?"
The needs of the caregiver are often overlooked or not given the same attention given to those needing care. It is important to recognize that providing care to another person can have negative effects on the caregiver’s well-being, both mentally and emotionally.
Perhaps, as individuals, we cannot offer much help to caregivers. But we can train ourselves to be cognizant of symptoms of caregiver stress and become acquainted with community support systems and services. As much as possible, we can extend positive support. Individuals living at a distance, while someone else acts as caregiver, can seek to understand factors that account for differing perceptions and expectations between those living nearby and those farther away.
All people involved can make continuing efforts to communicate effectively and make caregiving decisions based on objective assessments rather than emotional or social pressures. We owe it to our family, friends and neighbors to become educated about the role of caregivers and to be ready to assist, even if that assistance is only referral to a system or agency that can offer help.
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension has resources that can be helpful to those in caregiving situations. Ask your local Extension office about a program titled "The Dollmaker," which is an educational workshop on caregiving. Programs can be tailored to meet the audience needs for topics or length of time.
Cooperative Extension also has the following fact sheets available at Extension offices or at www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/consumer:
Caring for the Elderly (10.231)
Who Copes Well?(10.215)
Alzheimer’s Disease (10.233)
Parkinson’s Disease (10.234)
Age-related Changes in Memory (10.243)
Age-related Changes in Hearing (10.244)
Age-related Changes in Vision (10.245)
Additional information on Healthy Aging can be found on the Cooperative Extension Web site at www.ext.colostate.edu by selecting Info Online, Consumer/Family, then Healthy Aging.
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by Gale T. Miller, Extension Agent, Custer/Fremont Counties, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension