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Caring for the Caregiver: The Family Caregiver Survival Guide

Imagine that you're seated on an airplane, ready for take off. Before the you get into the air, everyone listens to the flight attendants and their instructions about what to do in case of an emergency. They explain the seatbelts and emergency exits, then they get to the part about the oxygen masks. If you listen closely, the flight attendants always point out that if the oxygen masks are lowered, to always put your own mask on before helping others. Don't put your child's, loved one's or even a stranger's mask on first. Always put yours on first. Once you are taken care of, you are then able to be helpful to others. "What does this have to do with caregivers?" you may ask yourself. Caregivers should use the same principle; If you don't take good care of the caregiver, the caregiver won't be able to help those who rely on them.

The Real Value of Caregivers

In the report “Valuing the Invaluable: The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving, 2011 Update" published by AARP, the figures are astonshing about just how much care is being provided by unpaid family members. “Most caregivers don’t think of what they’re doing as work,” said Susan Reinhard, Senior Vice President for Public Policy at AARP. “They think of it as what families do for each other. They don’t think of themselves as caregivers.” The most impressive finding in this study is the dollar value of this unpaid care from family members. If all of the unpaid caregivers in 2009 would have received the going rate of professional caregivers,  the total cost of care would have exceeded $450 billion dollars (up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007). To put that $450 billion in perspective, that's more than Wal-Mart's total sales in 2009, and the amount of unpaid caregivers are on a steady increase.

The "Typical" Family Caregiver

The typical family caregiver provides an average of 20 hours per week of unpaid care for a family member, all while maintaining their own job and family responsibilities. It's estimated that there are 62 million family caregivers in the U.S. alone; that's the same as the combined population of California and Texas. Add shortened hospital stays to the picture and caregivers are now helping their family members with things that would make a first year nursing student shudder. Caregivers provide such a crucial role in healing and comfort, that it's important the caregiver is taken care of as well. Being a caregiver can be difficult but it can also be it's own reward. According to a survey by Care Today Magazine, 80% of caregivers found their role to be emotionally rewarding. Even the most rewarding jobs have their challenges. The most common complaint from family caregivers is "caregiver burnout". Caregiver burnout is usually due to the caregiver being overwhelmed, mentally, physically and even financially. Watching a loved one suffer and being responsible for their care, although rewarding, can take a serious toll on the family member responsible for providing care. Whether you are the primary caregiver, or know someone who is, always be on the lookout for the signs of caregiver burnout.

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

  1. Changes in sleeping or eating habits.
  2. Change in the way you treat your loved one: Neglecting or treating them roughly.
  3. Excessive use of alcohol or other medications.
  4. Depression: Feelings of hopelessness or feeling disconnected.
  5. Losing control physically or emotionally.

Avoiding Caregiver Burnout

  1. Set aside "Me Time". This can be anything from a 10 minute break to enjoy your coffee on the porch, an hour reading, or even a few hours having fun with friends or family. The most important thing is to take a break.
  2. Ask for help. Realize that you can't do it all. Sometimes others don't know that you need help because you haven't asked. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it shows that you know your limits and want the best care possible for your loved one.
  3. Be honest. Sit down and have a truthful conversation about your situation. Let your loved one know that you enjoy helping them, but you still have other commitments.
  4. Make a schedule. Have other family members see what needs to be done and assign small tasks accordingly.
  5. Join a support group. Sometimes it's nice to vent or share experiences with others who truly understand. Check out nfcacares.org to find out more about support groups.
  6. Excerise regularly. It's been proven time after time that excerise is one of the greatest stress relievers, and keeping yourself healthy makes it easier for you to care for your loved ones too.

Always remember the Golden Rule of being a caregiver: Give yourself the same level of care that you would give your loved one. When you are healthy and happy, you can give your loved one the care they deserve while finding a healthy balance in your own life.

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