Are you a caregiver? According to the National Family Caregivers Association, 30 percent of the 50 million American caregivers are age 65 or older. But you may have taken on the role without even knowing it.
"Many people don't consider themselves caregivers. They say, 'I'm her husband or his sister, not a caregiver,'" says nurse LeAnn Thieman, author of Chicken Soup for the Caregiver's Soul.
Experts have some frank advice for caregivers:
Tip 1: Take stock
Assess your loved one's situation. Take an inventory of his or her individual needs. Can he bathe, use the toilet, get dressed and eat? Can she get out of bed, climb stairs and take medications? This will help you figure out where you or your loved one may need outside assistance.
A geriatrician, a physician who specializes in treating older people, can also help to evaluate your loved one's needs. "Geriatricians are skilled at managing the issues of older adults, including complex medical problems, and they are well connected with resources in the community," says American Geriatrics Society board member Sharon A. Brangman, M.D., chief of geriatrics at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University in Syracuse .
Tip 2: Find local resources
Identify and call your local agency on aging. After you have assessed your loved one's needs, area agencies on aging offer the most efficient way to find the resources you need.
"The department of aging in your community has the essentials that caregivers need," says Chloe JonPaul, Maryland state representative for the National Family Caregivers Association and author of What Happens Next -- A Family Guide to Nursing Home Visits and More. Check your phone book for the number of the nearest agency on aging.
"Don't hesitate to call them. I talk with staff members at many area agencies on aging who are frustrated because caregivers are unaware that they are a major resource," says Ms. Thieman.
Tip 3: Ask for help
Ask friends, family or your place of worship for assistance. "Three words are very important for caregivers: 'Ask for help,'" says Ms. Thieman. "Keep a list of tasks, such as shoveling snow or sitting with your loved one, so you have an answer when people ask what they can do to help."
Enlisting friends, family or organizations is a sign of strength in a caregiver. "Engage people to help you," says Ms. JonPaul. "And try to take time for yourself. Self-care is not a luxury. It's your right as a human being."
Dr. Brangman agrees. "In an airplane emergency, you have to put your air mask on first in order to help others. Likewise, taking care of yourself is the sign of a good caregiver."
Tip 4: Tap the Internet
Surf the Web, or find someone to do it for you. The Internet offers a wealth of information for caregivers. If you don't have a computer, perhaps a relative or neighbor can help. Ask them to print information from national caregiving Web sites for you to read.
"You can also visit your nearest public library or your local senior center and ask a staff member to help you look at several caregiver Web sites on the computer," says Ms. Thieman.
Tip 5: Share your feelings with others
Find a support group. The old saying "there's strength in numbers" holds true for caregivers. Just talking to others who are in your shoes offers camaraderie and practical advice about caregiving. Check area hospitals or senior centers for support groups.
"To avoid depression and stress, it's great to find a support group in your area. And don't forget humor. I call it one of the saving graces of caregiving, especially when dealing with dementia," says Ms. JonPaul.
If caregiving becomes too much, consider the services of a geriatric care manager. These professionals are trained to help families who need help with caregiving issues, says the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.
Above all, caregivers should be proactive and seek support.
"Caregivers tend to be underappreciated, but their role is critical," says Dr. Brangman. "Most caregivers say that it is the hardest thing they have ever done, but they wouldn't trade it because it is so meaningful and important. That's why caregivers need to take advantage of every available resource, so they can provide care for their loved one in the best possible way."
Here are some key resources. You'll find advice, tips, printed materials and information about day care, respite care, in-home services, support groups, Meals on Wheels, legal issues, talking with health care providers and other caregiving topics.
National groups that provide information, support, direction and other advice for caregivers:
Helpful Web sites for caregivers:
Online tools to help manage your daily life.
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