Caregivers Need Health Reforms, Too

Caring for family members may be unrelenting duty; survey finds even vacations often not possible.

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Caregivers are mostly women taking care of mostly women, generally unpaid and stressed most of the time. And that was before the recession. Now, stress levels have risen, fueled by added family financial pressures due to job losses and retirement-fund declines. Health reform proposals and debates largely by-pass this group, which has been estimated at 34 million persons. A recent survey by two caregiver Web sites—Caring.com and VibrantNation.com—finds half of caregivers unable to take even a basic summer vacation because of their commitments. And of those who do travel, 92 percent report being concerned about how their parent is faring while they are away.

[See How to Set Up a Caregiving Agreement.] Now, blood is thicker than water, and family obligations are important whether anyone is footing the bill or not. But the primary reason many of those 34 million folks are caring for a loved one is because there is no money to provide professional care. And while there is some expanded access to Medicaid in health reform proposals, it's hard to see Medicare becoming more generous. If anything, it's being looked to as a source for savings, not additional spending. And with more and more elderly people needing care each day, the nation's caregiving dilemma seems certain to get worse, not better.

Whether you're on the giving or receiving end of caregiving, here are the things that survey respondents said they did for their parent's safety while they were away:

  • Placing daily calls, 54 percent.
  • Develop medication check lists, 35 percent.
  • Ask friend to check in on parent, 32 percent.
  • Talk with neighbors ahead of time, 31 percent.
  • Arrange live-in care, 24 percent.
  • Pre-make meals, 22 percent.
  • Arrange daily activities, 11 percent.
  • Ask post office to hold mail, 8 percent.
  • Leave little notes and photos so parent knows he/she is missed, 8 percent.
  • Arrange for parent to take his/her own trip, 6 percent.
  • Arrange drive-by with local police department, 5 percent.
  • Set thermostat, light timers, 5 percent.
  • Andy Cohen, head of Caring.com, and Stephen Reily, founder of VibrantNation.com, said in separate interviews that there are no magic wands to remove caregiving stresses but mention several things that caregivers should consider. Rule #1 in caregiving, they said, is to take care of your own health first. Your value as a caregiver declines dramatically if your own health suffers from caregiving.

    Take a Staycation. If you can't get away for a true vacation, figure out ways to create some special "staycation" days for yourself, Reily said. If you have a normal routine, change it for your staycation. Don't set your alarm. Take a camera when you leave the house and treat your hometown as a tourist destination.

    Don't Be Isolated. For you, and your parent, social interactions with friends and visits to area museums and cultural events are great for your mental and physical health, and needn't be hard on the pocketbook. Also, "really let your friends know what you're going through," Reily says. Friends want to help, but they can't help if they don't know you're in need.

    Having Difficult Conversations. Caring for an aging parent often involves painful role reversals. Who's in charge? How do you tell your parent things they need to hear but may not want to face? For example, Caring.com has some scripted conversations on its site to help with these discussions. One of its most popular topics is talking to parents about giving up their cars. Cohen said users can search the site for advice on dealing with other sensitive topics.

    [See Are Seniors Being Targeted as Bad Drivers?]

    Money and Time Help. "Caregivers don't choose to do this," Cohen said. "It's usually sort of a last resort" that is thrust on them with little time to prepare. "So, they're incredibly stressed right away, and anything that helps save them time and money" is really helpful. Caring.com has a Medicare Information Finder to help caregivers figure out if Medicare will cover specific care expenses.

    You're Not Alone. Cohen said Caring.com recently launched a "Light a Candle" feature that allows site users to light a virtual candle, create a web page dedicated to a loved one and even send electronic "hugs and prayers" to someone who is in your thoughts. "The response has been overwhelming," he said.

    [See How the 'Old Old' Can Have Best Lives.]