Self-care is all gain, no shame for caregivers of loved ones
STILLWATER, Okla. – The fact that Americans are living longer than ever is a good thing; however, for a growing number of families, it also means serving as caregivers for older and aging parents, grandparents and relatives. Still others are caring for family members with long-term or chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Because the challenge of balancing personal obligations with the needs of those they are committed to helping can add up to a tremendous amount of stress and pressure for caregivers, it is crucial for those giving care to pay attention to their own wellbeing, said Jan Johnston, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension gerontology specialist.
“In the event of an airplane emergency, we’re always instructed to put on our oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. The same concept applies to caregivers,” Johnston said. “When your needs are addressed as a caregiver, the person you are caring for also will benefit.”
Nationally, more than one in every five adults provides some type of unpaid care for another adult. In Oklahoma nearly 348,000 caregivers provide more than 372 hours of care annually at an estimated value of $3.6 billion a year, according to the National Family Caregivers Association. Furthermore, 36 percent of rural Oklahomans serve as informal caregivers.
Sixty percent of caregivers today are women. Additionally, 26 percent of caregivers work outside the home and most people who care for an aging parent also are responsible for children under the age of 18. Consequently, caregivers often are sandwiched between trying to meet their own family’s needs, work obligations and managing the needs of the person under their care.
Developing a support system is critical to ensuring both caregivers and their loved ones are getting the necessary care and attention, Johnston said. On a practical level, creating a network of people to share the load reduces caregivers’ risk for illness, injury and depression, and also lowers the risk of job loss.
Even so, for some, it is hard asking for help, Johnston acknowledged. However, planning and seeking support from other family members, friends and others in the community is empowering and can give caregivers a measure of personal control.
“Physically sit down and think about the resources available to you as a caregiver,” said Johnston. “Speak with your employer about your options for taking time off and voice thoughts and concerns with trusted friends. Also, don’t forget about opportunities to barter or trade for help when it comes to your caregiving responsibilities.”
In addition, Johnston said caregivers should take advantage of community resources such as Oklahoma AgrAbility, a USDA-funded project designed to help farm and ranch families living with a disability – including chronic arthritis or a recent injury – enhance their quality of life and allow them to keep working safely and independently.
Through AgrAbility, eligible caregivers may have access to assistive technology that can help prevent injury and fatigue and increase their ability to work longer with less energy.
Some of the latest technologies include ergonomic handles for various tools, swivel cushions to help with getting in and out of the car, magnifiers to enlarge small print, key turners and door openers.
“Caregivers, in particular, are encouraged to use these devises and services. They truly can make life easier and safer,” said Johnston, who suggested visiting www.agrability.okstate.edu or calling 888-885-5588 for more information about AgrAbility.
Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that caregiving is universal and the support from others doing the same for their families is never far away. Johnston noted other coping strategies for caregivers include closely monitoring mood and body changes, getting enough sleep, eating well-balanced meals, exercising and setting aside time for themselves. Making and keeping medical appointments also is essential to caregiver health.
In addition, reading, asking questions and making a notebook for important documents; becoming educated about a loved one’s condition; and identifying what can be changed about the situation also can reduce caregiving stress.
“The important thing is that caregivers know they aren’t alone,” said Johnston.
Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer.
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