November is National Family Caregivers Month. We want to express our gratitude to you, who are part of the 40 million people (one in six Americans) who care for an older adult friend or relative. So many family caregivers feel invisible, we thought we’d give you some perspective on the scope of family caregiving across the country.
Are frequent visits to the ER a significant part of the past six to twelve months? Does your loved one seem more fatigued? Less interested in eating? Perhaps a bit withdrawn? These symptoms may be hallmarks of a serious illness your relative will overcome. But it’s also possible that these signal that your family member no longer has the reserves to beat their condition.
If the person you care for is a veteran and is seriously ill, they may qualify for a VA program designed to control symptoms that cause pain, discomfort, or mental or emotional distress. Called “palliative care,” this program is available even if the problems are as a result of treatments, not just the medical condition itself.
Do you ever wish you could wave a magic wand for more joy? Patience? Optimism? Motivation? Maybe less irritability and stress? It’s actually accessible now, no wizardry required. Just a shift in attention. Welcome to “anticipation.”
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are many other conditions that also bring on memory problems. It is important to accurately identify the cause, even if there’s no cure, because this will shape the best strategy for addressing difficult symptoms.
It’s unpleasant to imagine that your loved one might become the victim of crime, but it’s worth considering. There are valuable preventive steps to take. Unless your relative lives in a high-crime neighborhood, their greatest risk is a property crime in or around their home.
If your loved one is discharged from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility (SNF), their care will be in the hands of a team of specialists. It’s a good idea to understand the players’ roles so you know whom to call upon for what.
Depression is common in older adults. It’s long been known that brisk exercise can help reduce depression. But it turns out that exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous to make a difference. Even mild exercise can be effective.
No one likes to dwell on the possibility of disaster. But we all need to prepare for one, just in case. Help your relatives gear up for safety. Whether you live across town or across the nation, the action items are the same.
If your loved one has balance problems, the culprit may be in the medicine. Many common medicines have side effects that can impair balance and lead to a fall. Over 40% of persons age 65 and older take five medications or more. This increases the chance that at least one of the drugs has side effects of dizziness, blurry vision, drowsiness, or muscle weakness.
Has your parent remarried? If so, you may be sharing the caregiving with a person you don’t know very well. Biological families often encounter tensions when it comes to eldercare. Add a stepparent and the challenges can grow exponentially.
Medicare pays for many screening exams, and even counseling sessions, to help nip common illnesses in the bud. Screening tests are designed to identify problems before symptoms emerge. They are usually for people who are considered to be “at risk” for getting a specific disease. Here are some of the most common noncancer preventive services that Medicare covers. Ask the doctor if your loved one should be tested.
Good communication requires both speaking and listening. Oddly enough, if you make a specific effort to listen, it can open doors. Once “heard,” the other person may be more willing to hear your point of view. Deep listening is more difficult than it sounds. It’s not passive. It requires concentration. It also takes humility and empathy.
For a teen, a relative’s dementia can turn a close relationship into one that’s now awkward, confusing, and embarrassing. And creates feelings of guilt.
After you have scoured the Internet to help your relative find a potential new doctor—someone on their plan and with no obvious red flags—it’s time to get more specific. The doctor’s website may provide some descriptive information, but most likely, you’ll want a conversation.
For most family caregivers, frustration and guilt are common, as is anxiety and resentment. These feelings are normal and reasonable under the circumstances. It’s not realistic to eliminate negative emotions. Caring for an ailing family member IS emotionally taxing, especially in the case of memory loss. But sometimes the negativity can feed on itself.
Even pre-COVID, many 90-year-olds adamantly refused to go to a senior center, saying they didn’t want to be around “all those old people.” (!) Does this sound like your loved one? Admittedly, the senior centers of the past tended to focus on bingo and crafts. These activities are of limited interest to the newest generation of older adults. Happily, senior centers have been updating. Bingo and crafts are still there. But the upswing in technology use during COVID catapulted many centers into the 21st century
With summer’s warm weather, be on the lookout for dehydration in your loved one. The signs include confusion, fatigue, weakness, and sleepiness. Some people become dizzy and their balance is thrown off. Dry mouth, headaches, and muscle cramps are other symptoms of dehydration.
If the person you care for has dementia—memory or thinking problems from a condition such as Alzheimer’s, a stroke, or Parkinson’s—unpaid bills or a messy checkbook may have been your first sign that something was amiss. Certainly, in the later stages of dementia, your loved one won’t be able to manage their finances. But what about the in-between?
Elderly parents are living longer. Children are often dependent for more years than expected. Add to this the ongoing responsibilities to spouse/partner and jobs, and there is little wiggle room for the millions of family caregivers who find themselves squeezed in the middle as the “Sandwich Generation.”
Many older adults experience swollen legs and feet. For some, it’s because of sitting a lot and leading a sedentary lifestyle. For others, it’s the water retention side effect of a medication. And for others, the swelling—called “edema”—is a symptom of a chronic or even serious illness such as heart failure or liver or kidney disease.
The brain is another organ to keep fit, and regular workouts are a good thing! Our brains enable many types of thinking: Problem solving, planning, attention, and memory. They manage our emotions and help us understand the emotions of others. Our brains also control movement (balance, speed, and coordination). And it’s where we process our spatial awareness—used for packing a suitcase or reading a map.
Much of the strain of caring for a loved one lies in the loss of a predictable routine, a sense of “normalcy.” Understanding the course of your loved one’s condition—the rhythm of how it unfolds—can empower you to respond more flexibly to its challenges.
Your loved one may be watching for phishing scams on email, but now there are scams carried out by short message service (aka, texting). “Smishing” scams rose 58% in 2021. Nationwide they cost victims over $10 billion. Seniors are a prime target, as three out of five now own smartphones. While convenient, smartphones present new opportunities for getting scammed. Time to alert your relative to smishing.
Children generally like to feel included. But they may not know how to relate to an ill family member with limited abilities. Here are some ideas for home-based activities with elementary-age children.
Has your loved one been diagnosed with cancer? The vast majority (67%) of people with cancer live for another five years or more. A cancer is considered “stable” or “controlled” when tumors shrink or at least temporarily stop growing. This is not the same as being cured—no tumors—but it does make cancer more of a manageable chronic disease, like diabetes or asthma.
Do you ever look at friends and find yourself mad or upset because they have free time? They don’t have a relative that needs help? You might even wish they had it harder, had some real challenge in their life. And then you feel guilty. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Envy is a natural human emotion.
A primary care provider (PCP) is charged with monitoring and treating a person’s whole body. Specialists abound and indeed are important. But we are more than the sum of our organs. Your relative’s PCP helps ensure that specialists are not doing things that counteract each other. If you are looking for a new PCP, there are several types of providers to consider.
Is low vision making it harder for your loved one to cook? If food preparation has been one of their pleasures, they are probably grieving not only the change in their eyesight, but also the loss of creating and serving delicious meals. Even if cooking has not been a passion, the ability to safely prepare food for oneself is critical for maintaining independence and self-esteem. Fortunately, there are ways to empower your relative with simple strategies and inexpensive tools. Here are some techniques that augment and use all the senses. They also protect safety.
We’re breathing all the time. But when it comes to stress relief, not all breathing is equal. Our bodies are built to handle periodic crises. When we sense danger, our bodies release “stress hormones” that enable us to respond powerfully and fast. When the crisis is over, those hormones are no longer released. The body returns to relaxed, “normal” mode. But chronic stress is damaging. When we’re stressed every day, the “fight-or-flight” hormones keep running. Not a lot, but enough to upset the body’s balance and undermine physical health and mood. The body is distracted from its routine tasks of repair and maintenance. This can result in significant consequences.
If the person you care for has dementia, you may have noticed their withdrawal from conversations, movies, even from reading books or the newspaper. Anything with an involved plot line is now too difficult for them to follow. Poetry, on the other hand, involves rhythm and images, which can stimulate memories of experiences, emotions, smells, tastes, and other sensations. All quite accessible by persons with dementia. Plus, many older adults went to school when poetry was an active part of the curriculum. Exploring fun poetry together may tap into positive memories from the past.
Those who donate organs, eyes, or tissue leave a tremendous legacy, often the gift of life itself: Allowing someone a steady heartbeat. Or the vision to see a grandchild. Or healthy skin to cover a burn or cancer site. National Healthcare Decisions Day (April 16) is when everyone is encouraged to create or update their advance directive. These end-of-life documents include a section for letting family members and healthcare providers know whether you choose to be an organ donor.
Combining households has many benefits: Less hassle running back and forth between two residences, less worry about Dad eating well and remembering his meds, more family social time for him, cost savings on rent and utilities, etc. But if things do not work out, disentangling could cause hurt feelings and damage your relationship. Consider these questions before you move in together.
Families spend three to five years caring for an aging relative. At first it may be light chores or small errands now and then. But over time, health challenges emerge and needs grow. In his book, My Mother, Your Mother, geriatrician Scott McCullough outlines eight “stations” in the journey of late life. For each one, he offers insights and tips to help you counter the modern system of “fast medicine” with personalized solutions he calls “slow medicine.”
People who go through chemotherapy for cancer often complain about “chemobrain.” If your loved one is under treatment and is having trouble with memory, thinking, and concentration, it is likely from the chemo drugs. The fuzzy thinking may not go away right when chemo stops. But it usually recedes over time.
Juggling multiple schedules, keeping other relatives informed, ensuring prescriptions are filled … these are but some of the many duties you may face as a family caregiver. In some instances, a simple spreadsheet can do the trick. But an app makes it easier to coordinate with others.
Anxiety and stress commonly accompany family caregiving. The ongoing pandemic and its stream of variants are only adding to that. Perhaps you could use a little “psychological first aid.” These are skills or techniques first responders are trained to teach or apply to distressed persons after urgent physical issues have been addressed.The goal of psychological first aid is to help people feel safe (physically and emotionally), calm, and hopeful. Connected to others. Sound good? Try these strategies on yourself.
Is Dad asking if he should sell the house now that Mom is gone? Or perhaps Aunt Mary is anxious about her stock investments. Even if you are good at managing your own money, helping a relative make financial decisions can bring a lot of pressure. Consider hiring a professional to advise you.
If a loved one in your life is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, very likely they are dealing with the common side effects of nausea and vomiting. Not fun. Encourage them to follow these tips.
Care in a nursing home is expensive. For an extended stay, most people will need to pay quite a bit out of their own pocket. If there are no savings, Medicaid—the joint state-federal health insurance for low-income individuals—will step in.
Romance crime is on the rise. Over 25,000 people reported a sweetheart scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019, a threefold increase since 2016. Individuals age 65 and older were the hardest hit, with a median loss of $9465 (across all ages, the median loss was $2500 per individual). If your loved one has been taken advantage of, they are not alone! Romance scams are the second most common crime reported to the FBI.
We all know the classic heart attack portrayed over and over again in movies and on TV: Someone writhing in sudden, severe chest pain.
But many heart attacks aren’t like that at all. Instead, they start slowly, typically with some mild, on/off pain or tightness in the chest. These signs are so much less dramatic than what people expect, they too often are ignored. The result, sadly, is often fatal when in fact a prompt response could have saved a loved one’s life.
In the last two weeks, as a loved one is nearing death, it is natural to want to be at their side. But then, what? Especially if you have never been in this situation before, you may feel uncertain—even awkward—about what to do. The ideal is to be a calm, reassuring, and loving presence focused on keeping your relative comfortable. Here are some tips.
The pandemic has brought on a wave of physician retirements. Perhaps one of your relative’s doctors has sent a letter announcing the close of their practice. Yikes!
When choosing a new physician, it’s worth the time to do some research. The right fit is critical to your loved one’s health and well-being.
If you are like most family caregivers, your social life has dropped in priority as you juggle your loved one’s needs. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up all your friendships in addition to your family responsibilities.
Grief is the expected response to a loved one’s death. We expect to mourn, and we receive comfort from others. But in the context of a dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the loss is not as clear cut. Your partner is “here but not here.” And you do not receive the same support or acknowledgment for the very real losses.
Time off from caregiving is precious. But after a break, many family caregivers find they don’t feel as refreshed as they hoped they would. Current research provides insights about how to get the most from a respite break.
If your loved one has health challenges, they may be feeling a loss of control. Add to that a terminal diagnosis and a sense of doom may prevail. But recognizing that life is coming to a close does not have to mean one waits glumly for the end. Following are some of the many ways hospice patients have chosen to take action and purposefully write their own “last chapter.” Perhaps one of these might appeal to your loved one:
Typically, it’s family members who fill in to perform the necessary tasks. But for many, perhaps including you, there are obstacles to helping on a regular basis. (Quitting your job to provide care is risky. Leaving work midcareer jeopardizes your retirement options and savings.)
Is your loved one having trouble hearing the television? Closed captioning isn’t helping enough? Check out these possible solutions.
It is usually obvious what a person with dementia is no longer able to do. But finding things your loved one CAN do may feel like a challenge, especially if memory loss is severe. Here are some tips:
For nonmedical support, check out community programs. Many are provided by nonprofit organizations. Others by faith communities. And still others by local government. Most offer discounts or a sliding-scale fee.
The holiday season is a festive time of year, but it may not feel much like a celebration for people grieving the loss of a loved one. Holidays are an especially tender time for missing those who are no longer with us.
Almost 3.5 million members of the military served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975. Was your relative one of them? This group of veterans continues to face physical and mental health problems.
“When are we going out?” A reasonable question under normal circumstances. But if the person you care for has dementia, you may get this question multiple times in an hour. Aargh! Indeed, repetitive questions are one of the top irritants mentioned by family caregivers whose loved one has dementia. The repetitive questioning isn’t done intentionally,…