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Caring for Elderly or Disabled Family Members

by Theresa Cloud Eagle Nelson

Caring for Elderly LAThere are a growing number of Americans caring for older people and disabled adults in their families and their communities. The estimated number of caregivers is currently at 44 million people filling this unpaid labor force. These people have little to no training for the roles they have accepted, making them ill prepared to provide care. A large number of caregivers are suffering from poor health and have made the decision not to put their loved one in a long-term facility.

These caregivers believe they will have assistance from siblings or other family members to share in the responsibility for this monumental task. In addition, they do not believe they are affected by these additional responsibilities, including consistent exposure to the suffering of another person.

Many of these caregivers are at risk emotionally, mentally and physically because of health problems arising from multifaceted care giving situations and the strains of caring for frail or disabled relatives. But the fact is, medical advances, shorter hospital stays, improper planning for discharge of the individual, and the expansion of home care technology has increased the cost and the responsibility of giving care. The family is often made to shoulder the full financial burden due to lack of adequate health insurance coverage.

An article featured in the 2010 Winter Issue of Pennsylvania Caregiver Magazine outlines the effects of stress on in-home caregivers. I share it with you here to emphasize the points I am making, i.e. the importance of caring for yourself.

“Formal training is typically not an option for family members who often take care of relatives with dementia or any other type of illness. Stress is exhaustive for these family caregivers, which leads to a higher occurrence of breakdowns and depression. Dementia is just an example of the types of care giving on the list of health imbalances and disease enveloping people who have taken on the responsibility of caring for a loved one.”

“Steven Zarit, professor and head of Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State University, and his colleagues from Benjamin Rose Institute studied the 15 most common stressors for caregivers, including: financial strain, patient behaviors, frequency of help from family and friends, and care giving time demands. Approximately four million people in the U.S. care for a family member with dementia. Typically, care continues for five to seven years, but some take on this role for 15 to 20 years.

“The most common way to help caregivers is to teach them specific coping skills for stressors, but many existing interventions target only one set of stressors.

“‘The majority of caregivers are living at home, with little or no help,’ says Zarit. ‘The family has to pay the physical, emotional and financial cost of the caring, which can be staggering. When the caregiver gets overwhelmed, it raises the probability of a breakdown in the care situation.’ In a few cases, there are even reports of neglect or abuse.

“‘Most interventions operate as a preventive measure – they reach people before the stress becomes overwhelming. Because stress profiles vary so widely, we just don’t know how much of a given stressor will hit a threshold and when we should make an intervention,’ says Zarit.”

As you experience these stressful times, it is your responsibility to set boundaries and take actions necessary to rejuvenate yourself for health and well-being.

Respite, a way of getting away from it all, is a necessary action for caregivers. Respite means rest, relaxation and simple down time. A few options to consider for respite and relieving stress for those who are in-home caregivers of family members are:

  • Family meetings: enlist the support of extended family members
  • Adult Day Care services: provides structured activities for your family member
  • Go on a Silent Retreat
  • Check into a hotel or B&B for the night if finances permit

Caregiving LATheresa Cloud Eagle Nelson is the President and CEO of Self-Care Restorative Solutions, specializing in teaching caregivers to live guilt-free and balanced lives. For more information, call 614-476-8680 or visit

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