Caring for the Caregiver

By LeAnn Thieman

Terry stacks the breakfast dishes into the sink, hands the freshly packed lunchboxes to her son and daughter, bundles them into their coats and boots, and hustles them to the school bus. With a smile and a wave she promises, “I’ll pick you up after school. We’ll make Christmas cookies for your Girl Scout meeting, and then we’ll go to your basketball game.”

She scurries back into the house to spoon-feed one more before leaving for her part-time job. After wiping his hands and face, she kisses his nose, helps him into the car, buckles him in, and drives him to daycare. Hugging him, she promises, “I’ll pick you up at lunchtime, Dad.” With a vacant look in his eyes, he asks, “But what about breakfast?”

Terry is one of the 54 million Americans caring for a family member. Over 40% of families who provide care for an elder have children at home under the age of eighteen. Seventy-five percent of caregivers are women. Part of the “sandwich generation,” many will spend more years caring for a parent than they will raising a child. Not only are they ministering to their parents and children, many are caring for their children’s children. From 1990-2000, the number of kids living with grandparents increased 30%.

Alarmingly, women who care for grandchildren have a 55% greater risk of heart disease. Caregivers of someone with a chronic illness have a 63% chance of dying early. It’s no wonder caregivers often experience troublesome feelings such as depression, resentment, worry, helplessness, exhaustion, guilt, anger, and sadness resulting from the reversal of parent-child roles. But when caregivers care for themselves, these statistics and severe emotions can be drastically reduced.

Caregiving depletes a person not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Because 25% of the world population is caring for someone, we all know a person in a caregiving role. Here are 12 easy tips for you to help care for that caregiver:

  1. Extend compassion and empathy first.
  2. Encourage them to care for themselves as attentively as they do others. Remind them to get regular checkups, to eat properly, exercise, and get adequate sleep.
  3. Suggest they take time out for themselves and use relaxation or stress management techniques such as meditation, visualization, biofeedback, or yoga.
  4. Advise them to pay attention to their own feelings and emotions and to seek counseling and support groups if needed.
  5. Listen.
  6. Help them to stay actively involved with friends and hobbies.
  7. Assist them in finding respite care so they can regularly take time for themselves.
  8. Subscribe them to supportive caregiving periodicals and magazines and give them spiritual, inspirational, and encouraging books.
  9. Help them tap into community-based and national resources for support. The National Family Caregiver’s Association and the Area Agency on Aging are great places to start.
  10. Deliver a heat-and-eat meal.
  11. Offer to sit with their loved one, even for 30 minutes, so they can take a bubble bath or a walk.
  12. Tell them how much you admire them for all they are doing.

These small efforts to care for the caregiver create a win/win/win situation. Your relationship with the caregiver will flourish; the family member will receive care from a happier, healthier caregiver; and that caregiver will feel cared for, too—a much needed and overdue gift, any time of year.

LeAnn Thieman is a nurse, author, and Speaker Hall of Fame inductee. She is co-author of Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul, as well as Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul, Second Dose. To learn more about her books and presentations, contact 1-877-THIEMAN.

[From the April/May 2009 issue of AnswerStat magazine]