As the baby boomer population continues to age, the importance defining, supporting and improving relationships between those in need of care and those managing care is becoming ever more relevant.
The term "caregiver" in regards to seniors housing and care has evolved and expanded to mean much more than the nurse in a care home attending to a patient. It has even evolved to mean more than a child caring for a parent within their own home. In today's world a senior's caregiver could be a spouse, family member, friend, neighbor or acquaintance. The concept of "care" can include housing a senior in your home, supporting a senior that lives in a housing community, or being a resource for a senior that lives on their own.
As a senior, the process of aging can be much more pleasurable if you come to respect and understand the important role a caregiver can play in your life. Likewise, whether you find yourself unpredictably or voluntarily in a care giving role, it is vital that you not only understand the value of your role, but also the significance of your relationship with the person receiving care and your responsibility to care for yourself as well.
Choosing a Caregiver
"As you age it is important to think about who is going to care for you if you need care," says Barb Small, program coordinator at the Family Caregivers Network. "If you have options, you need to consider who will be the best person to support you as you age. There are lots of possibilities. It could be a family member or friend. Your caregiver may come through a subsidized home support or private agency. There are even volunteer agencies that can provide you with someone to support you as a caregiver, if need be."
Like most things in life, the more you can plan in advance, the easier life's transitions will be. Determining who will be your caregiver and taking the time to discuss what things are important to you (such as care, housing, medical and financial issues), can ensure that you have more control over your life. Planning ahead also helps to reduce some of the stress your caregiver will go through when making decisions for you.
"The earlier you can sort out your legal and financial stuff, such as who will be your legal representative or power of attorney and what will go into your will, as well as defining how you would like to live as you age, the easier the transitions in your life will be," says Small. "It can be hard to talk about dying and medical needs with family or friends but it does make it a lot easier on you and the people caring for you when those things are in place. "
Understanding the Caregiver Role
The role of the caregiver is often a controversial one. Children often have differing opinions as to how their parents should live and neighbors checking in on a friend might be considered nosey. Spouses looking after each other may feel lost and unsure of what to do next. Whatever the situation and whomever the caregiver, coming to an understanding of the caregiver's role can be a challenging task that has to be redefined over time. Determining what is in the best interest of another person is a difficult task.
"As a caregiver you may think that moving the senior in your life closer to you, is a good idea. But you need to look at this from the perspective of the senior. Is it smart to move them away from their support system, their pharmacy, the doctors and hospitals that they know? What impact will such a move have on them, and what impact will it have on you as the caregiver? Is the person you are caring for willing to move?
"We have a term at the Family Caregivers Network that as a person you have the 'right to live at risk.' This can be a hard concept for caregivers to accept," says Small. "If a person is mentally competent, they have the right to not take their medication, not to see their doctor, or to stay at home. They are adults, capable of making their own decisions. This can be really hard for caregivers to accept when they are trying to help someone and feel some responsibility for the other person."
Understanding what resources are available as we age and openly discussing these options together, can sometimes relieve the tension between caregivers and seniors.
"The disability resource centre in your community can be very helpful. Many people don't think that someone elderly is disabled, or they think there is a stigma attached to admitting it. If you are walking with a walker or cane, you do actually have a disability. This is not a negative thing and the disability resource centre can provide you with lots of great tips and resources."
Supporting the Caregiver
Depending on your personal situation, the person you deem your caregiver may never need to do more than check in with you on a weekly basis to see how you are doing. However, your caregiver may find themselves having to make major decisions on your behalf that can impact their personal lives, how they spend their time and their emotional health.
"Caregivers need to learn how to become good at time management. If you are going to add caring for another person in any way to your life, you are going to need to ask yourself what else in your life you'll need to modify to make this work," says Small.
"There can be great payoffs to being a caregiver - like giving back to someone who took really good care of you. I got to see a part of my dad that I never really got to see as a kid. Working through the tougher times of his life together we had a lot of laughter and joy," says Small. "The majority of studies show that if people had the option to care for a loved one again, that they would do it. Not everybody is cut out for it. I often wonder if I hadn't cared for my Dad, if I hadn't done that, how I would I feel now?"
"Many caregivers are angry. They find themselves suffering from grief for the person they are caring for and themselves, for their lost hopes and dreams for their future. The 'sandwich generation' is stressed - stuck between raising their own children and caring for their parents. Lots of people find their employment affected. My sister had to take a four month leave of absence to take on the caregiver role. "
Almost all caregivers experience guilt of some variety. Even if they are the best caregivers in the world, when you take care of another person you will always have some guilt that you could have done more.
"At the Family Caregivers Network we promote self-care for the caregiver. A lot of caregivers say I don't have time, but the reality is that if you as the caregiver get sick then there are two patients," says Small.
"Get support as a caregiver. A lot of the time caregivers think they are the only person doing this. They feel that they are quite isolated. In many of our workshops caregivers are quite surprised and relieved to find out that there are others out there experiencing the same types of issues and stresses," says Small. "To avoid burn out caregivers need to keep doing stuff that is valuable and important to them. And they need respite. Respite could be as simple as going to a coffee shop for the afternoon, or having a friend come stay with the person you are caring for. Finding a support network for yourself is also important, as well as having systems in place for stress management and self care."
For more information about finding and/or being a caregiver visit the Family Caregivers Network at www.fcns-caregiving.org.