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Caring for the family caregiver

Taking care of a sick or disabled family member can be an emotional roller coaster. “Today” contributor and consumer attorney Alan Kopit offers advice on how to make the process as stress-free as possible.
/ Source: TODAY

You’re a 45-year-old baby boomer with a successful career, who has been able to manage all of your family responsibilities — taking care of your kids and spouse. You have even begun planning for college and retirement. You’re fortunate to have your parents alive and you always expected them to remain independent, self-supporting and healthy well into their later adult years. But then something happens and you’re stuck in the middle — stuck in the middle of caring for two generations — your kids and your parents.

A recent survey by the AARP shows that nearly half of the baby boomers have children at home and parents who are still living. Nearly a quarter are caring for elders. So where does that leave you? You are trying to do as much as you can for your parents while coping with the stress of jobs, children and your marriage. You have needs, but so do your kids and your parents. This article will help you to understand the concerns of caregivers, and how they can manage their needs as well as the needs of their parents and kids.

WHO IS A CAREGIVER?

For some, caregiving evolves. The caregiver takes on more and more responsibility as a parent or loved one is unable to perform the activities of every day life. For others, a crisis occurs when caregiving is literally thrust upon them, generally due to some medical problem. In either case, if your help is needed, the experts report that you must assess the situation from different perspectives — from your parents’, from your family’s, and equally important, from your own perspective — so that you can provide the best help possible while maintaining a balance in your life. Being a caregiver is a significant responsibility with legal, financial, medical and emotional issues to consider. You will be a better caregiver if you recognize that your needs, as well as the needs of the person you’re caring for, must be met.

ASSESS A PARENT’S NEEDS

An assessment is a comprehensive review of a person’s legal, physical, mental, environmental, social and financial condition. It helps establish his or her ability to remain safely independent. It identifies risks and offers options for reducing them. A successful assessment will result in a comprehensive plan for meeting needs and addressing problems. It is essential that your parents participate fully, if they are able to do so, in the discussion of options. It is important to discuss: what your parents need to feel secure; whether your parents are self-sufficient; and if it becomes dangerous for them to live alone, where they would like to live. You must also learn about their financial condition as this may dictate the type of care that can be provided. Listing these issues is easy, but actually discussing them with a parent can be very difficult because of your parents’ fears about losing independence and facing a future with unknown financial consequences.

CAREGIVERS MUST DO AN ASSESSMENT OF THEMSELVES

Taking care of yourself is very important if you are a caregiver. Some caregivers are reluctant to acknowledge the strain associated with the many tasks, responsibilities and long hours devoted to the caregiving role. Many feel overwhelmed, burned out or bitter. It is important not only to give yourself credit for the work you are doing as a caregiver, but also to arrange for some support and an occasional break from daily duties.

When your needs are taken care of, the person you care for will benefit as well. Particularly when you are getting started, take advantage of flex-time policies your employer might have. In addition, ask your Human Resources or Personnel Department to give you information on the “Family and Medical Leave Act” if you work for an employer covered by the Act. This law entitles eligible workers a maximum of 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave for family caregiving without loss of job security or health benefits.

MANAGE YOUR WELL BEING

The following should assist the caregiver in managing his or her well being, while also meeting the needs of parents, children and spouses:

Assess your parents’ legal and financial needs. Find out whether they have an estate plan? Have they given you powers of attorney for healthcare and for making financial decisions for them? The healthcare power will allow you to make medical decisions including consent to medical procedures or obtaining medical records. The financial power will allow you to handle your parents’ financial affairs, such as paying everyday living expenses or collecting Social Security.

Don’t neglect your own legal needs. Be sure your estate plan is in order and that you have made provisions for your family in areas such as retirement and college. A common mistake is to take care of others but to put off addressing your own needs in the process.

Address financial issues early. Adding the burden of caring for parents, particularly when it happens unexpectedly, can have serious financial consequences. Can your parents assist in paying those expenses, and have you discussed that issue with them? Do so from the outset so that you don’t become bitter by making financial sacrifices, which could also make your family resent your efforts in the process.

Recognize the emotional strain. Stress can become significant. Be sure to get away regularly, and don’t give up all of your personal time or personal activities to care for others. Ask for help from community and religious groups, and don’t turn away the help of family and friends if it’s offered.

Remember the family. Just because you have aging parents who need your help doesn’t mean that your teenage daughter or young son doesn’t need attention as well. And don’t let the marriage suffer during these periods either. Discuss the situation openly and honestly with the family, engaging the family in caregiving if possible.

HELP IS AVAILABLE TO THE CAREGIVER

Networks are already in place to help people who are caregivers. You can find what you need and where you need it, without going in circles. More than 650 area agencies on aging throughout the United States help older people and their caregivers by planning, developing, and providing in-home and community services. A private case manager specifically for older people, called a geriatric care manager, can help you find services. This care manager will complete a thorough evaluation of your older relative, and will do all the work necessary to coordinate the placement of needed services in the home or help you consider whether a nursing home is the option. Caregiving is a hard job, and many communities have caregiver support groups, where people can get emotional support, share information and feel connected to others who are giving care. Communicating with other caregivers can give you helpful tips and strategies, relieving that overwhelming sense of isolation that many caregivers face daily.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

There are many fine organizations to assist:

National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA)
Web site: www.nfcacares.org Phone: 800-896-3650

Family Caregiver Alliance
Web site: www.caregiver.org Phone: 415-434-3388

AARP Caregivers Circle
Web site: www.aarp.org/community Phone: 800-424-3410

Eldercare Locator
Web site: www.eldercare.gov Phone: 800-677-1116

National Council on Aging
Web site: www.ncoa.org Phone: 202-479-1200

Alan Kopit is a consumer attorney with the firm Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP in Cleveland, Ohio and a regular contributor to “Today.”