Caring for a Family Caregiver

November is National Family Caregivers Month – and it’s safe to say that 2020 is the most pivotal year that family caregivers have ever experienced. Nearly 8 months into the pandemic, what family caregivers are experiencing is nothing short of a crisis when it comes to balancing care for senior loved ones with life’s other priorities.

Samara Miller, Institute on Aging’s Regional Director of Client Services in Home Care and Support Service, interacts with family caregivers on a daily basis, and is acutely tuned in to their elevated stress levels. “Even in normal times, caregiving comes with a lot of stress and anxiety,” she says. “Adding in the restrictions created by a global pandemic combined with a shifting economy only worsens their  stress.”

With all these factors, it’s more important than ever for caregivers to take care of themselves as well as establish healthy habits and a positive mindset. Miller offers her thoughts below.

IOA: How has the pandemic changed the dynamics of caregiving?

Miller: Besides adding on more stress, caregivers are feeling lonelier than ever before in this day and age. They are taking care of the population’s most vulnerable individuals, which means that many activities they used to do outside the home have been put on pause for safety reasons.

We’ve also seen a lot of caregivers being innovative with their time. They have tapped into old fashioned fun, like doing puzzles or craft projects with those in their care. They are using technology, like Zoom, to connect with the outside world. Some are reintroducing music and dancing to their loved ones, and helping them discover new passions. We recently talked to the caregiver of an 85-year-old man who is practicing meditation for the very first time in his life. Here are more ways a caregiver can help older adults.

IOA: What are a few things that family caregivers can do in the name of “self-care”?

Miller: I like the term “caring for ourselves” instead of self-care because there is no stigma of needing to be fixed or helped attached to that terminology. Caring for ourselves is part of the caregiver journey and is a vital piece of making it successful. It’s important for caregivers to find what personally works for them, what makes them feel good, and what they can be passionate about. 

Some things I have found to work well for caregivers: taking a nap, listening to music, dancing, baking a special treat, cooking, taking socially distanced walks with friends, joining a support group, exercising, binge watching a TV program that makes them laugh, gardening, doing craft projects, meditating and having a spa day at home. I even had one client who purchased a punching bag and boxing gloves and took out his frustrations that way!

IOA:  What are things that other family members and/or friends can do to support the family caregiver and perhaps give them a break? 

Miller: Everyone has different needs. Instead of assuming what the family caregiver needs, it’s better to just ask them, “What can I do to support you?” All too often, family caregivers are resistant to having someone give them a break or help them, so don’t force it. They may just need someone to spend time with them and listen. Most important, family members and friends can demonstrate consistency, kindness, understanding, and show the caregiver that they are there to support them when needed and in ways that the caregiver prefers.   

Keep in mind that being a family caregiver can be a very thankless job, so simply saying “thank you for all that you are doing” to a caregiver — and showing your appreciation in other ways — can go far.

IOA:  Are there certain “boundaries” that caregivers need to put in place, and what do those look like?

Miller: Boundaries aren’t just important in caregiving, they are essential to success. I like to think of boundaries as setting up healthy, consistent habits. For example, caring for ourselves is a healthy habit, as is creating a daily routine and sticking to it. So is approaching caregiving without resentments and regrets, while having acceptance of the situation and finding a way to deal with it. 

IOA:  On the flip side of the boundary question….what can a family caregiver do when other family members want to insert their own opinions about the older person’s care, etc. but aren’t the primary one offering the care?

Miller: When someone in a family steps into a caregiver role, it changes the whole dynamic of the family structure. All too often, family members, friends, and almost everyone have an opinion in what the caregiver needs to do and how to handle things. As a result, it is often difficult for the caregiver to accept opinions of others who are not experiencing the situation on a daily basis.  

First and foremost, the primary caregiver needs to remember that family and friends are offering their opinion from a place of love and concern. Validate what they are offering by listening, however remember the final decisions rest with you. Be honest with them about that.

Above all, try to defuse any tense situations by looking for the humor in them. If you can laugh with your family, or even with the person you are caring for, it can go a long way.

Samara Miller, MFT, Regional Director of Client Services, Home Care & Support Services, Institute on Aging 

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Institute on Aging

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