Every day around 40 million Americans assist elderly or disabled family, friends or neighbors with simple tasks such as bathing, preparing meals, housework, shopping for groceries, doctor's visits and taking medication. Often, it's only this volunteer care that allows the individual to continue to live in their own home, or with family, rather than in a specialized facility.
Who are the caregivers?
Look around you. Caregivers are everywhere. Research from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP reveals that while the "typical" family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman taking care of a family member, the profile of the family caregiver is becoming more diverse. Nearly 25% of caregivers in the U.S. are aged between 18 and 34, while men overall now represent around 40% of family caregivers.
The impact on this silent, unpaid army of caregivers is immense. One in five say they are experiencing significant financial strain. Many are devoting more than 20 hours per week to the care of their loved one and have typically been providing care for an average of five and a half years. Despite this, 34% of caregivers are holding down a full-time job, and a further 25% work part-time. Trying to manage work and family alongside caring for a loved one, it's no wonder that nearly half of these caregivers admit to feeling stressed and burned out.
There is a growing number of helpful resources springing up to support caregivers through these challenging situations. Responsible employers are starting to respond to the needs of employees who have caring responsibilities with flexible leave and paid time off.
Bringing it home
As our population ages, it is more likely than not that most of us will encounter a situation in which a close family member is likely to need care. If a sibling, cousin, neighbor or friend has stepped up to provide the majority of that care, they should receive all the help and support that we can give them in performing this essential but challenging role.
Whether you live next door or on the other side of the country, there are plenty of thoughtful ways you can give these unsung heroes in your family and community the breaks they need and deserve.
The first and most direct way you can give a caregiver a break is by offering practical help. Caring for another person can represent an overwhelming amount of work, particularly if the caregiver already has family or employment responsibilities they are also trying to deal with. Chores can pile up leaving them feeling stressed and unable to cope. You might not see a problem, as every time you visit Mom and Dad's house it's pin neat–but do you know what is going on in the caregiver's own house?
#1 - Laundry
Offering to do laundry each week is a thoughtful and practical way to provide assistance. Clothes and bedding can really pile up, especially if there are any issues with continence. You could offer to take care of the caregiver's own household laundry at the same time.
#2 - Cleaning
Cleaning is another way you can offer real, tangible help. Taking on necessary and time-consuming chores like cleaning bathrooms and kitchens can make a big difference with how the caregiver feels, letting them know you are willing to shoulder your share of the unpleasant tasks.
#3 - Shopping and cooking
Grocery shopping and cooking for a disabled family member or elderly parent can be a depressing experience for a caregiver as all too often it's a struggle to persuade the individual to eat the food that's been prepared. You could help by picking up groceries and cooking and freezing a variety of meals. Being able to put lunch or dinner together quickly will be a major help on days when there is just too much to do. Adding a couple of casseroles for the caregiver's own family is a truly thoughtful touch that lets them know someone cares about them, while they are carrying the burden of caring for others.
#4 - Mowing and yard work
Simple external home maintenance tasks such as fence painting, deck washing, mowing and other yard work are all jobs that typically get neglected when the pressure is on. If you're not confident in your cleaning, cooking or laundry skills, these tasks may represent a different but equally valuable way you can help. If you have teenagers around, these are chores they can step up and take on to relieve the pressure on the caregiver.
Tip: The way you offer practical help to the caregiver is important. Try not to make a vague, conventional offer such as "Let me know if there is anything I can do…" as the caregiver is very unlikely to do so, reasoning that you are simply being polite. Instead, be very specific. You can say things like, "Would it help if I took care of Dad's laundry each week?" or "I'm doing a bunch of cooking this weekend. How about I freeze some for meals for Mom that you can just defrost and reheat for her?"
#5 - In-home services
If you live too far away to provide hands-on practical help personally, or you are nearby but short of time yourself, there are lots of services that are often just a telephone call and a swipe of a credit card away. Laundry, cleaning, yard work, grocery and meal delivery, and home organizers are services that are readily available in many locations.
Tip: You might find the caregiver will protest these are tasks they can easily do themselves and the cost of these services isn't justified. While it's true the caregiver is likely more than competent to do all these chores, they will very quickly become burned out, especially if they are trying to manage two households at once. Consulting them about which services you engage will help them retain a sense of control and ensure you don't accidentally take away from them any tasks they actually enjoy.
#6 - Social companionship
Another form of practical help which is often overlooked is providing social companionship for the person who needs care. Caregivers are often overwhelmed with practical tasks and lack the energy, temperament or patience to simply sit and chat with lonely elders for long periods of time. A companion program can provide a compatible adult to spend time with Mom or Dad, complementing visits from the family caregiver and allowing them a little more freedom to organize their time without feeling the guilt of leaving their parent without someone to talk to.
#7 - Massage therapy
Getting enough sleep, making time for regular exercise and eating a healthy diet were probably some of the first things to fall by the wayside when the caregiver reorganized their schedule to accommodate their caring responsibilities. Caring itself can also be tough on the body. Lifting and bathing immobile or disabled adults, particularly if they are aggressive or uncooperative, can be hard physical work that is likely to result in aches, pains and bruising for the caregiver.
Booking a series of massages for a caregiver is a thoughtful and practical gift that will release emotional stress, treat aches and pains and show the caregiver you care about them and that their well-being is important to you.
#8 - Yoga and Tai Chi
Similarly, yoga and Tai Chi are excellent activities that offer gentle exercise alongside stress relief. Organizing a regular class for your caregiver to attend and possibly going along with them each time could make this into a weekly treat for both of you that helps to keep them going when times get tough.
#9 - Walking
Simply going for a walk is a fantastic exercise that clears the mind and restores the spirit with no planning needed. Just drop in and offer to stay with Mom or Dad for a couple of hours and let your caregiver get outside and blow the cobwebs away with a brisk walk.
#10 - Fit in some fun
Booking a round of golf, taking them bowling, signing them up for a spin class or trying out horseback riding are just some of the other fun and interesting possibilities to consider depending on their interests and their fitness level. Pampering options like haircuts, manicures and spa sessions are also an excellent choice.Tip: Whatever you pick, the key is to make it possible for the caregiver to take up the opportunity. It's not enough simply to book them into a session or two as they likely don’t have the time to go. Make your gift meaningful by creating the time for them to take advantage of it. This means you'll need to put in place an alternative solution for caring for their aging relative or disabled family member for the duration of the activity.
#11 - Remember them
Just calling regularly and listening while they unload how they're feeling will reduce their stress and let them know you're there. Or try sending them a handwritten note letting them know you're thinking about them.
#12 - Include them
Don't forget to keep on inviting them when you go for coffee, to a movie or just out to the mall. Nine times out of ten they will probably say no and that they don't have time, but they will still feel the warmth of being wanted and included.Sometimes just feeling appreciated and included can be enough to give a caregiver a little lift that is enough to give them the emotional break they need in their day.
#13 - Go to them
If they can't come out with you, try going to them. If they are missing out on fun nights with friends, bring a few buddies over to Grandad's house, watch some movies and eat popcorn and ice cream together. Grandad will probably love the company and your caregiver will feel like they've had a break.
#14 - Spoil them
If your caregiver has to stay with Mom overnight and barely has time to see their partner, why not turn up with a bagful of groceries and cook and serve dinner for them both, spoiling them properly with a beautifully laid table, candles and a special meal.
#15 - A chance to get away
The gold standard for giving caregivers a break is to actually arrange for them to get away for a few days. Some time away will help them to relax, clear their head and recover physically and mentally from the strain of looking after the loved one who relies on them for so much.
Caregivers usually have a highly developed sense of duty, which is why they have stepped up to provide care in the first place. This means the most critical element in giving caregivers a break from their responsibilities is to put in place a watertight plan for providing care while the caregiver will be away. If this isn't in place, or the caregiver doesn't have confidence in the plan, then either they won't go or they won't be able to relax.
If you or other friends or family are unable to take over while the caregiver is away, there are plenty of alternatives available. Professional caregivers can continue to provide care in the home while the caregiver is taking a break. This minimizes change and disruption for the individual being cared for which can be critical to their confidence and comfort. For elders struggling with Alzheimer's and dementia, the continuity and familiarity of staying in their own home help to reduce anxiety and minimize confusion.
Respite care in adult daycare centers, short-term nursing homes or senior living communities are also worth exploring and can provide an opportunity for a caregiver to have some freedom from their responsibilities for longer than just a day or two.
Our caregivers deserve and need our help and support. Caring for a family member, friend or neighbor–however beloved–is hard work and can take a heavy toll on the health, family life and finances of caregivers. Finding thoughtful ways to show them they are appreciated, lightening their burden and giving them an occasional break aren’t difficult and could make a significant difference to their well-being and resilience.