A while back I had a conversation with a patient who we’ll call Mark. Mark was driving home from work one hot summer afternoon when he noticed his elderly neighbor Jane walking down the sidewalk. He stopped and asked her where she was going. She said she was going to get her car. Mark told her to hop in and he would give her a lift. There was only one problem. Jane couldn’t remember where she had parked her car.
November is National Family Caregivers Month. It is a time to recognize and support our family caregivers. Mark was acting as a caregiving neighbor. A caregiver or carer is an unpaid or paid member of a person’s social network who helps them with activities of daily living. Caregivers help to address impairments related to old age, disability, disease or a mental disorder.
Family caregivers provide 90% of long-term care in America. With an increasingly aging population in our developed society, the role of the caregiver has grown both functionally and economically. There are roughly 65 million Americans serving as family caregivers for an ill or disabled relative. About 60% of these caregivers are female.
Caregivers have many tasks that vary depending on the patient. Some of those duties include assessing medical needs, assisting with basic needs such as bathing, grooming, toileting and housekeeping. A caregiver may develop a care plan including monitoring medication and performance. A caregiver helps to transfer and move a patient comfortably, such as moving a patient from bed in the morning to a chair in the afternoon. Caregiving may also include preparing meals and transporting your loved ones to medical appointments and other activities.
One of the most important things you can do as a caretaker is to take care of yourself. Caregiving can be an emotional roller coaster. Caring for your family member demonstrates love and commitment and can be rewarding. On the other hand, exhaustion, worry, inadequate resources and care demands can be enormously stressful for the caregiver. As a caretaker, when your needs are taken care of, the person you care for will benefit.
During my next conversation with Mark, he told me that Jane had been found lost and confused about 50 miles west of her home. The police were called and they tracked her car registration to her home address and eventually notified her son who came to pick her up. Now Mark stops by her home every morning during his dog walk to check on Jane. When Jane can’t remember how to turn off her oven vent fan, she walks over to Mark’s house, and he goes to help her turn it off. Again. Even though Jane is not happy that her son took her car away, she is getting more visits from her family members than she had in the past. Now Jane has many caregivers in her family and in her neighborhood.
Be sure to put a plate on the Thanksgiving table this year for the caregivers in your family or neighborhood or beyond. Someday a caregiver may be helping you. Even though the work of a caregiver can be exhausting, it can be deeply rewarding. As Dr. Leo Buscaglia once noted, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”