On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness information for all Oklahomans, published three times a week.

Becoming a Caregiver

They’ve cared for you, encouraged you and been there every step of the way through your life -- but now it may be approaching the time when you need to evaluate the needs of your parents. When it comes time for a parent to need special care, it can be difficult for all the parties involved. This life transition is often filled with emotion and stress, but as you decide how to proceed with the best possible care for your loved ones, it is important to consider all the variables of this decision.

What is a caregiver?

A family caregiver is a demanding role that may include coordinating treatment with various providers, performing at-home medical tasks, and providing mental and emotional support for your loved one. Before becoming a caregiver, you should evaluate your own mental health, stamina and availability. Preparing early for this role will help alleviate some of the stress it can have on your personal health. If you are considering becoming a caregiver, there are several areas you should evaluate with your family before making the decision.

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Assessing your loved one’s needs

As your family transitions into this new phase of life, it is important to discuss the upcoming changes with all involved family members. These changes may be frightening for everyone, especially the one needing care, so it is important to include him or her in the decision-making process as much as possible. Before choosing to move a loved one into your home, be sure to discuss this decision with your family physician.

Changes in your home

If your family has decided to have a loved one move in with you, it is important to assess both your loved one’s physical needs and whether your house is prepared for the change. Depending on his or her independence and mobility, you should consider making the following changes in your home:
  • Make sure your house is wheelchair accessible, and evaluate any stairs in the home and whether or not they will need to be used frequently.
  • Install grab bars in the bathroom and shower your loved one will be using, and put a raised seat on the toilet.
  • Remove tripping hazards like power cords and rugs.
  •  Apply non-slip strips to potentially dangerous areas like stair steps and shower floors.
  • Turn down the water heater temperature to avoid scalding.
  • Install good lighting throughout the house.
  • Widen doorways where necessary.
If you do not feel comfortable making an assessment of your home by yourself, a healthcare professional can assess your home and make recommendations based on your loved one’s needs and your home’s accessibility.

Changes in your lifestyle

While you may easily imagine a few ways your life could change by becoming a caregiver, you should spend serious consideration time evaluating your current schedule, availability and flexibility before making a life-changing decision. Questions you should ask yourself:
  • Does your loved one need assistance throughout the day? Does your current schedule allow you to provide this care?
  • Does your loved one struggle with memory loss?
  • Is your loved one able to complete daily tasks independently (food preparation, bathing, toileting), or will he or she need assistance?
  • Are you comfortable providing intimate care, or will you need to hire an in-home nurse for some needs?
  • Is your schedule flexible and are you able to drive your loved one to doctor’s visits, social events, and other activities outside of the home?
  • Do you live in an area where your loved one could receive the appropriate medical care when needed?
If you foresee any areas where it may be difficult to perform the duties of a caregiver, discuss your options with your family and physician to find the best solution for your needs.

Changes in family roles

Becoming a caregiver should be a decision made by all involved family members, and it’s possible it won’t be an easy choice with no emotional repercussions. Caregiving often happens after family situations occur that force changes immediately, but it does not need to be this way. It is important to begin the discussion of how your family will handle life changes as early as possible, to prevent the stress that comes from having to make drastic changes quickly. It is increasingly common in today’s world to find people caring for both their parents and their children at the same time because people are generally living longer and having children later in life. Social scientists even have a name for this phenomenon: they're calling it the “sandwich generation" -- and it’s made up of millions of Americans (the Pew Research Center estimates nearly one in eight) who are tackling both elder care and childcare simultaneously. Regardless of whether you still have children in the home, you may notice shifts in your family dynamics once you have accepted the role of caregiver. This role may demand you spend time away from your spouse or children, and may increase the amount of household responsibilities for other family members. Open communication is key during this process -- with your children, spouse and loved one. Large adjustments need to be made by all family members during this time, and it is important to validate their experiences and discuss the best possible options for coping with your new normal.

Three common issues caregivers face

While this life change may bring many new stressors into your life, there are three issues most common among caregivers.

Stress

The nature of caregiving is stressful, from the constant multitasking to the responsibility of caring for another person’s wellbeing. However, you don’t have to do it alone. There are many local support groups you can join to help navigate these changes in a healthy manner, including the INTEGRIS Mind Body Spirit class called “Support Group for Caretakers.” To register, call the INTEGRIS HealthLine at (405) 951-2277. High stress levels can lead to increased risks of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and chronic depression, so it is important to make time for the things you love and stay healthy. By caring for yourself first, you’ll be able to better care for others. So go ahead, continue enjoying your morning runs, take an art course or meet with your best friends for coffee once a week.

Financial hardship

When caring for a loved one, financial strain is perhaps one of the most unexpected strains. Caregiving can be a costly venture, and the United States does not currently offer any “caregiver allowances,” as is common in other countries. For this reason, it is important to build a solid foundation of financial security at the beginning of this new phase of life. As a caregiver, you may need to help your loved one organize his or her finances, and it is important to document every financial decision, expense and income source. You should ensure your loved one receives all the disability benefits they are entitled to, as well as other income sources. When making financial decisions, you will need to include the appropriate legal counsel and find solutions to the following incidents:
  • Medical directives
  • Power of attorney for finances and health decisions
  • Living trust
  • Living will
  • If needed, adult guardianship or conservatorship
  • Personal care agreement with family members to effectively prevent/manage any potential conflicts or disagreements over care
To prevent stress from financial hardships, prevention is the best medicine. Begin preparing and budgeting as early as possible and working with your loved ones to make the best financial decisions for everyone involved. Many caregiving support groups and organizations also offer resources for caregivers, including financial guidance and advice.

Depression

When caregiving, many people quit their full-time jobs to care for their loved ones, taking them away from their normal interactions with friends and coworkers. Combined with the stress of dealing with the issues mentioned above, caregivers may find themselves isolated and feeling alone. Depression is common among caregivers as they undergo what can be a very challenging situation. People experience depression in different ways, but it is important to recognize depression in either yourself or your loved ones and seek the appropriate help. Common symptoms may include:
  • Feeling hopeless, sad or empty
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Feeling tired, lacking motivation
  • Loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Experiencing strong negative emotions
  • Thoughts of escaping your situation
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death or suicide
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek help immediately. INTEGRIS Mental Health offers a wide variety of resources for anyone experiencing these symptoms or going through a challenging time.

Caring for yourself as a caregiver

Marge Jantzen of INTEGRIS Third Age Life Center says that caring for yourself is one of the most important aspects caregivers should remember as they face the many other challenges and difficulties on their caregiving journeys. She reminds caregivers on the importance of asking for help when needed, and accepting help from others when it is offered. Often, caregivers try to handle their responsibilities alone, but involving other family members (however they are able to help) is vital to the caregiver’s health. Keeping the lines of communication open with other family members will provide much needed support for everyone involved. caregiving-information-from-integris

Support groups

If you are a caregiver, there are many options available for you to plug into a community of individuals going through similar experiences. Jantzen says, “There are support groups specific to various diseases (cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, etc.) or to caregiving in general.” She recommends your local Area Agency on Aging as a good resource because it usually has a list of support groups within its service area. In central Oklahoma, she recommends Areawide Aging Agency’s Senior Connection at (405) 943-4344. In metro OKC, the caregiver fundamentals program of Sunbeam Family Services offers many support programs for caregivers, including support groups. Jantzen suggests calling them at (405) 528-7721 for information about their offerings. INTEGRIS frequently offers classes for caregivers. Two popular courses are “Caring for the Caregiver with Healing Touch” and “Patient and Caregiver Fatigue.” Visit the Classes page to find the next available class for caregivers.

Know your worth

If you are a caregiver or may become one soon, understand that you are playing an important role in the health and wellbeing of your loved one. The role may change as you and your loved one go through different phases, but it will be both challenging and rewarding.  Remember to look after your own health as you journey through this role, and recognize the significance of your own care as you look after your loved one.

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