According to a 1999 survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, some 52 million Americans care for a sick or disabled family member. This translates into one out of four households caring for people 50 and older says the Family Caregiver Alliance.
As the ranks of family caregivers continue to swell, a host of issues is raised which will become more critical over the next five to ten years.
A typical caregiver today is a 46-year-old woman, married and working, who spends around 18 hours a week caring for her elderly mother. She is a member of the so-called "Sandwich Generation".
The necessary arrangements typical caregivers must make put a great deal of strain on families, both financially and emotionally. Evidence is growing that caring for the elderly is taking a big financial toll on employees and their careers. A recent study completed by the National Center for Women and Aging at Brandeis University suggests that two-thirds of workers who care for elderly relatives have lost out at work by forgoing promotions, pay raises and training opportunities.
Researchers at Indiana University recently surveyed 3,000 women. They found that the longer women cared for a sick relative, the more likely they were to suffer depression, insomnia, and even physical difficulties climbing stairs or lifting heavy objects. The study was published in the March, 2000 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Although most caregivers bear their burden with love, social workers say the tasks are so demanding that most people feel inadequate. Often they have unrealistic expectations that they can make a loved one's later years the happiest of their lives. Since no one has that power, strong feelings of guilt are common - feelings that there are so many things that could, might, should have been done.
What can caregivers do to protect themselves and their loved ones? Most importantly, they must turn to community programs and professional resources for help, as well as to family or friends. Willingness to delegate is essential.
Most communities have an Area Agency on Aging. An elderly person with limitations may be eligible for homemaker-home health aide services, transportation, home-delivered meals, as well as chore, home repair and legal assistance. The Federal Administration on Aging offers a wealth of advice on locating help for caregivers.
Often, there are special needs to be met, as in the case of Alzheimer sufferers. Much needed advice can be found in the Caregivers Guide to Alzheimers Home Modifications.
Stressed caregivers should also consider joining a support group, either in person or on the Internet. Sharing feelings and frustrations with others who understand the situation can be very beneficial.
The most important thing to remember is that the burden does not have to be borne alone.