How to Be a Caregiver: New York Times Readers Share Six Critical Strategies They Think Every Person Should Know
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles come out every year talking about the topic of caregiving. Enter the word “caregiving” in your search engine, as we just did with Bing, and you’ll have more than 27 million hits. Few of these articles about caring for a loved one contain information that is truly new.
Yet today there are millions currently serving in that capacity, and millions more who will one day (voluntarily or otherwise) take on the role of caregiver. An AARP study done in 2020 pegged the number of unpaid caregivers in the U.S. at 53 million, a figure which certainly grew during the pandemic. The caregiving journey is one of continual adjustment, and those with experience have valuable insight to offer.
November is National Family Caregivers Month, set aside as a time to recognize and honor family caregivers across the country. With that in mind, this week on the AgingOptions Blog we’re bringing back this very comprehensive New York Times article for another look. It’s simply titled “How to be a Caregiver,” and while we’ve featured it before, the topic is timely and the insight helpful. (Note that a subscription may be required to access the original article.)
Twenty Percent of U.S. Adults are Currently Unpaid Caregivers for a Loved One
We can’t begin to cover the entire report, which was written by health editor Tara Parker-Pope. But we did want to share the first portion in which New York Times readers who have served as caregivers for a loved one share what we all need to know, because sooner or later we’ll be the ones either giving care or receiving it. “Even if you’re not a caregiver now,” Parker-Pope writes, “odds are that you will find yourself in the role someday. In the United States about one in five adults is providing unpaid health or supportive care to someone they love.”
It could be an aging parent, spouse, partner, or friend. Many caregivers look after disabled children. “Rosalynn Carter,” says the article, “the former first lady who started the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, famously stated that there are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will become caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”
The Role of a Caregiver Can Begin Suddenly or Gradually
As Parker-Pope explains, the journey each caregiver travels into that role is unique. “Sometimes a person becomes a caregiver overnight after a health crisis, like a stroke or cancer diagnosis,” she writes. “But often, caregiving starts slowly with a few errands like picking up groceries. While you may not call yourself a caregiver, at some point it becomes clear that life has changed and you don’t have the freedom to go on vacation or out with friends unless someone else can step into your caregiving role.”
Amy Goyer, caregiving expert for the AARP, told the New York Times that coming to grips with the role of being a caregiver is an essential step. “If we acknowledge that we’re caregivers, we’re much more apt to get resources, support and services that can help us in that role and help the loved ones we’re caring for,” she said. “Personally, it’s important to acknowledge it. It’s something to plan for and schedule in your life.”
Despite the Hardship, Caregiving Also Brings Great Joy, Readers Say
Parker-Pope’s article stresses the fact that, while caregiving can be burdensome, it has a profound upside. “When I asked readers who had cared for a loved one to tell me what we should know about caregiving, I received hundreds of emails from current and former caregivers who wanted to help,” she writes. “What was most notable is how consistently caregivers talked about the joy and satisfaction of the work they do, despite the enormous hardship it sometimes imposed.”
She related the story of one reader who shared her memories of caring for her mother. “The early days of taking care of Mom weren’t easy,” this reader related. “But we shared our feelings and worked things out. My favorite memory is of Mom and me sitting on our wonderful screened-in porch, listening to the Sinatra station while Mom rocked in her chair, and I worked on my needlepoint. We would spend hours on that porch. Mom has been gone for four years now. If I could spend just a few more hours with her on that screened-in porch, rocking and needlepointing, I’d be in heaven.”
Six Personal Strategies for Caregivers
The New York Times article is very comprehensive, offering what Parker-Pope calls “practical advice for getting organized and finding resources to ease the burden.” But she also shares these six personal strategies offered by other caregivers to guide you through the challenging times. Here they are, quoted from the article:
Strategy #1: Let the patient lead. Readers consistently talked about the importance of autonomy for the one receiving care. Include the person in care decisions whenever possible. Make sure doctors and family don’t fall into the bad habit of talking about the patient as if he or she weren’t in the room.
Strategy #2: Focus on comfort. Let comfort, joy and pleasure be your guideposts. Try not to nag. Readers talked about the importance of small moments of shared joy — listening to swing music or a favorite crooner, playing card games and going for ice cream.
Strategy #3: Listen to the experts. Find experts to advise you, and listen to them. Arm yourself with information from caregiving organizations and support groups. Trust your instincts. Ignore most of the unsolicited advice you are likely to receive.
Strategy #4: Talk to other caregivers. Support groups will be one of your best resources.
Strategy #5: Take care of yourself. Even five- and 10-minute breaks during the day can help. Try keeping a gratitude journal, download a meditation app or do a six-minute workout to refresh your mind and body. Use adult day care or in-home caregivers from time to time so you can take a break. Take up friends on their offers to help, even if it’s just to get your hair done. Exercising, sleeping and eating well will make you a better caregiver for your loved one.
Strategy #6: Shed the guilt. Guilt is a common theme here, but experienced caregivers say it’s important to know your limits, practice self-compassion, ask for help and remind yourself that the work you’re doing is difficult and important.
Is Giving or Receiving Care in Your Future?
“If caregiving is not a topic you’ve thought about,” Parker-Pope advises, “it’s time to start. A number of global and social trends have changed the outlook for all of us, whether it’s giving care or needing it.” As health care costs rise and the population ages, giving and receiving care at home will be an escalating trend.
As recently as 2015, according to published reports, there were just over 43 million caregivers nationwide. Today that figure stands at 53 million and rising. Women comprise about 60 percent of unpaid caregivers, and the average age is getting younger: about one-third of all caregivers are 39 or younger. “On average,” the New York Times reports, “today’s caregivers provide about 24 hours of care each week. And most of them (61 percent) have another job.”
Words of Advice from Rajiv Nagaich
As we saw during the global pandemic which radically changed the care plans for many retirees, Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions stresses the urgent need for preparation. “It’s not enough for mom or dad to simply tell the kids, ‘You’re going to take care of me.’ And it’s not enough for the kids to offer good intentions and little more when it comes to being a caregiver. Families today have got to be ready!”
Now is the time to seek out the help that AgingOptions has to offer. Schedule a family conference now, not when a health crisis strikes. Lay your plans carefully, and with the help of AgingOptions you can face the future with confidence, knowing you’re prepared. We also encourage seniors who hope to age in place to consult with a reputable home care agency who can evaluate your circumstances and chart a course for you to achieve your goal. Living out your life in your own home doesn’t have to be impossible – if you take the right steps today.
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When it comes to retirement planning, most people focus on one fairly narrow issue: money. Financial planning is an important component of retirement planning. However, people heading towards retirement often make the mistake of thinking that a little financial planning is all that’s required, when in fact most financial plans are woefully inadequate. What about your medical coverage? What if you have to make a change in your housing status – will that knock your financial plan off course? Are you adequately prepared legally for the realities of retirement and estate planning? And is your family equipped to support your plans for the future as you age?
The best way we know of to successfully blend all these elements together – finance, medical, housing, legal and family – is with a LifePlan from AgingOptions. Thousands of people have discovered the power of LifePlanning and we encourage you to the same. Simply visit our website and discover a world of retirement planning resources. Make certain your retirement planning is truly comprehensive and complete with an AgingOptions LifePlan. Age on!
(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)