The Importance of Caring for Family Caregivers

By Beth O’Keefe RN Care Coordinator with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, from the not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Service of New York

Seniors woman with her caregiver at home

It is November; the weather is getting colder and the days are growing shorter. It seems like only yesterday when we were complaining about summer’s heat. Already we need to think about dressing warmly enough for the weather; and before you know it, it will be time to think of heating bills and “wintry weather conditions!” November has been designated as National Family Caregivers Month – highlighting the unsung and often exhausted and overwhelmed family members providing care to family members and loved ones unable to independently manage and care for themselves.

This month is a good time to stop, take a step back, and reflect on the importance of acknowledging and addressing your own needs, BEFORE stepping back into what, for many people, is one of the primary ways that they identify themselves: the caregiver to their family member. Harsh as it may sound, you have GOT to look out for your own needs first. On an airplane, parents and those travelling with young children, are told that in the event of air pressure destabilization, that they are to put their own oxygen mask on first – and then the child’s. Why? Because if they pass out from a lack of oxygen they will no longer be able to help the child. Only by looking out for your own needs, will you have the ability to assist someone else with theirs!

Family Caregivers come in all guises, each having their own unique “story”: many caregivers find themselves sandwiched in between caring for their own children and their aging parents; others have reached the “empty nest phase” of their lives, only to find that their children have left home, but they are now the primary caregiver for their parent of parents; others have a functionally or mentally disabled loved one who has never been, and never will be able to, independently manage their lives; this list could go on. The stresses that come along with making sure that lunches are packed, homework and college essays are done, clothes are laundered, medications are taken and doctors’ appointments are kept – along with maintaining the other aspects of your life – such as a job and getting enough sleep – can take enormous tolls on family caregivers – both at home and at work.

As a Registered Nurse, with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York, my job is to help our members get the care and services they need to live safely in their own home or in an alternate community setting dependent on their needs and resources. VNSNY Choice Health Plans is a Managed Long Term Care (MLTC) Medicaid Health plan. Our membership are adults with, or eligible for, Medicaid who meet certain criteria including an ongoing need for a community based long term care service – such as a Personal Care Assistant. Making sure family caregivers are practicing good self-care is a part of my job too—because if we don’t take care of ourselves, we lose the ability to care for someone else.

Here are a few very basic guidelines to review this November and keep in mind all year long:

Seek training and resources

When caring for a loved one who has functional limitations, a chronic disease condition or even with multiple chronic conditions, you may need to develop new skills such as learning how to do wound care, assisting with mobility issues, administering or managing their medications. You may need to learn a whole new skillset including the proper body mechanics of assisting them with transfers, positioning and toileting. It is crucial that you learn what to do, as well as how to do it, in order to not only assist them correctly, but to avoid self-injury. Involved health care professionals, insurance plans and community resources can assist in referrals to resources which can assist you in safely and correctly meeting your loved ones needs. Durable Medical Equipment (DME) such as grab bars, raised toilet seats, and other assistive devices can make things easier and safer for all involved parties.

• Remember: You are Part of Your Family Member’s Care Team

If you have professional home care services in place, clinicians want to hear your feedback, since you are the one who knows what’s going on when they are not there. If you have a concern, raise it—more often than not, your instincts are correct and your health care providers can help improve the situation. If you see something – say something!

• Don’t Try to Go It Alone

Daily caregiving can be demanding, overwhelming, and isolating. If someone offers to help, accept their offer. CaringBridge.org and SharetheCare.org are models that help people pool efforts to ease the burden on family caregivers and help those without family nearby.

• Take Care of Your Own Health

Try to get some exercise every day, even if it means just a few short walks per day or doing a yoga videotape in your living room. Keep your own healthcare appointments—many caregivers are so busy taking their family members to appointments that they don’t take care of their own health. Remember to get a flu shot, a cholesterol screening, blood pressure check, and other annual exams.

• Give Yourself a Break

This can be a hard one for many family caregivers! Some communities have resources through home health care agencies, churches, social service agencies and community groups that can help you take breaks for “you time” and provide much needed support. It’s important to try to make time once a week to do something for yourself: whether you meet a friend for a walk bowling or a movie, take an exercise class, go for a long walk or just enjoy a few minutes of quiet time to yourself – what you choose to do will be dictated by your interests, resources and time available. Your local Agency on Aging may have resources to bring in home health services, or you may be able to place your family member in an adult day care program for a few hours. Two of the benefits on MLTC programs are social day care and respite care. Check with your loved one’s insurance plan to see what benefits might be available to them.

• Join a Caregiver Support Group

Connecting with others in similar situations can be one of the best ways to manage your own emotions and prevent burnout and depression. If you can’t leave your family member alone at home, there may be online or telephone support groups available that will provide helpful connections to other caregivers who understand what you are going through and can share resources and insights from their own experience.

This November, take a few minutes to reflect and consider whether or not you are doing enough to tend to your own needs. It is easy to blind yourself to the stresses of caregiving, after all, you are caring for someone you love—that is not supposed to be a “burden.” But what starts out as a simple act of love or kindness can become more challenging, exhausting and overwhelming over time. Remember, taking a few hours to care for yourself does not mean you care less for older or younger members who depend on you. On the contrary, taking care of yourself is often the first step in providing the best care for the ones you love. For more information about VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, please call 1-855-AT-CHOICE (1-855-282-4642) or visit www.VNSNYCHOICE.org.