Rachael Wonderlin, 28, is a gerontologist and dementia care consultant who has been a staff member specializing in care of those with
Being a caregiver
An estimated 4 million-plus Americans are paid caregivers for aging or disabled individuals.
That’s a lot, but the number is dwarfed by the extent to which spouses, children and other relatives or friends end up with caregiving tasks for which they never trained and may lack time, skills or both. A recent AARP report estimated that 34.2 million adults provided unpaid care to someone age 50 or older within the past year.
Those unpaid caregivers spend billions of hours annually helping frail individuals with their daily hygiene, preparing their meals, doing their shopping, cleaning their homes, transporting them to the doctor or assisting by other means, according to AARP. It represents help the group valued at an estimated $470 billion, a number that is only rising with the aging of America’s population.
In Allegheny County, about one of every five people 55 or older report themselves as caregivers in some form, according to a recent University of Pittsburgh report, “The State of Aging in Allegheny County.” But caregiving needs are outpacing the availability of people and programs to provide the care.
While it’s work that many people want to do for the people they love, it has its challenges and downsides. Among them:
Caregiving can require a big economic sacrifice when the one providing it is a working-age person who is part of the sandwich generation (assisting parents and children simultaneously) or otherwise responsible for running his or her own household. In some cases, a person doing so for a relative or friend can be paid under the state’s Aging Waiver program to assist a low-income individual who would otherwise qualify for government-subsidized nursing home stays. Your Area Agency on Aging (412-350-5460 in Allegheny County) can provide information on whether you qualify.
While new caregivers may easily handle ordinary tasks such as preparing a lunch or doing laundry, meeting other needs can be more daunting. Assisting with bathing, toileting, wheelchair transfers and the like pose physical challenges most of us are unaccustomed to, plus a range of emotional and medical issues may be new to caregivers. Tips on how to go about such work are provided by many Web sources, including this site of the Family Caregiver Alliance. In an AARP-backed legislative initiative to help, Pennsylvania has enacted a law that will require hospitals to provide any needed training on health-related tasks to a designated caregiver when a patient is about to be sent home from the hospital.
Caregiving, whether for someone with physical or mental disabilities, may be a rewarding experience, but it can also be extremely stressful. Numerous studies have shown that home caregiving increases depression, fatigue and isolation and heightens risk of their own physical health maladies for those performing it.
If a caregiver becomes sick, it’s doubly bad because of the effect on both him or her and the person being cared for. Experts recommend taking breaks by reaching out to other relatives, friends, neighbors, church members and anyone else reliable who will assist for at least a few hours a week so the caregiver can get out of the house. Families may also qualify for government respite help, depending on finances. Individuals should contact the Area Agency on Aging (412-350-5460 in Allegheny County) to see if they qualify, with further information available here online.
It often helps, as well, simply to share both the good and bad aspects of caregiving with others in the same boat who can relate to the experiences and offer some peer advice. Groups oriented around specific diseases, such as the Alzheimer’s Association (helpline: 1-800-272-3900), organize support groups through which caregivers can meet regularly to let off steam or learn from one another. A quick Internet search may turn up a local group you can connect to, depending on your focus. Otherwise, consider the general sites below for advice.
Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging caregiving-related programs: www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/caregiversupport.aspx
National Alliance for Caregiving, an advocacy group for family caregivers: www.caregiving.org
Family Caregiver Alliance, another advocacy group: https://www.caregiver.org/
Caring.com has a wide range of information for caregivers: https://www.caring.com/caregiver-wellness
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