Emily Anderson is a Care Coach with Familylinks, where she works with caregivers of older adults to find practical solutions and stress management strategies for day-to-day life. We talked with Emily about the challenges facing today's caregivers - and learned how anyone can help ease their burden.
Tell us a little about Familylinks. What services do you offer?
Familylinks is a non-profit social service agency in the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania. We work with families on many issues that occur across the lifespan.
For older adults, Familylinks operates a popular senior center called Vintage. It's one of the county providers of Options Care Management services for older adults, and it offers a unique support program for caregivers of older adults called the Caregivers First Initiative. The Caregivers First Initiative is a free, evidence-based method of one-on-one coaching that helps caregivers use community resources, problem-solve common challenges, and learn effective ways of dealing with stress.
What are some of the challenges of aging in today's society that you think aren't very well-known by the general public?
When people picture an older family member getting sick and needing a lot of help, they often picture that person moving to a nursing facility. While that is the case for some people, 90% of the care that older adults receive is provided at home by family members, not by professionals. The work that family members do is worth over $450 billion a year; but unfortunately, family caregivers are getting scarce. Because of the aging baby boomer group, there will only be half as many people available to care for older adults in the next few decades. The result is that we will be relying more and more on family caregivers who will be feeling increasingly overwhelmed and stressed.
When you communicate with people who care for elderly individuals, what are the most common issues that these caregivers are struggling with?
Caregivers of older adults struggle with both practical and emotional issues. For people who are not health or mental health professionals, it can be very overwhelming to be faced with tasks like sorting medications, organizing doctors' appointments, and providing hands-on care. On top of that, caregiving can be a very lonely task where people give up their social life, their hobbies, their privacy, and their free time to care for their loved one. While most people I talk to would never give it up, it's still tiring and frustrating.
The stress of helping another person puts caregivers at an increased risk for chronic health issues, burnout, depression, and even death. Addressing both the practical and emotional issues helps caregivers feel more in control and more balanced.
How common is it for elderly individuals to be suffering from multiple conditions or problems? And how are caregivers affected in these instances?
It is common for older people to be dealing with multiple issues, and it is also common for caregivers to be dealing with problems of their own. As we age, our problems tend to occur in a chain - first your knees go, then because you can't walk you gain weight, the weight causes diabetes, and before you know it you have a wound that won't heal. Caregivers are along for that ride and have more and more to manage as their loved one declines. On top of that, since caregivers are focusing on their loved one, they often forget to take care of themselves, skipping doctors' appointments, meals, and exercise in order to get done what they need to get done.
Based on the latest research, what are some of the approaches, techniques, or technologies that are producing successful outcomes when it comes to senior citizens and the issues they face?
There are many advances for helping seniors, as well as many new technologies that also make being a caregiver easier. Digital tools like shared calendars or remote video monitoring make it easier to coordinate tasks between family members or to check on a person's safety without intruding.
Most of all, though, caregivers long for someone to give them advice and to listen to their experiences. At the Caregivers First Initiative, the methods we use are shown to decrease depression and the sense of burden while helping people feel more confident as caregivers. Personalized support programs like the Caregivers First Initiative allow us to provide advice, support, and coaching that is tailored to each individual person.
Obviously, it's important for caregivers of elderly patients to be caring and patient. But what's the one skill that you think each one of these caregivers must possess?
It's important for caregivers to learn to be honest, yet gentle with themselves. How much can you handle? How are you really doing with everything? What kind of help do you need? Each caregiver has different abilities and needs. Looking honestly at where you need support is the best way to keep yourself in one piece - and your loved one in good shape.
For people who are relatives, friends, or work colleagues of caregivers for elderly patients, how can they help or support those caregivers in their day-to-day efforts?
If you want to help a caregiver in your life, offer specific help and follow up on it. For example, instead of saying, "Let me know if you need some help," ask the caregiver, "Do you need someone to mow your lawn? Do you need someone to stay with your mom for a while this week?" Many caregivers are sensitive to the fact that other people are busy and they don't want to weigh down other people with their problems. Many people also think people are offering to help out of politeness. If you truly want to help, offer again!