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More than 60 million Americans are providing care for family members who, due to the infirmities of aging or impairments related to disabilities, need daily care to ensure their health, welfare and safety.  The vast majority of these caregivers receive no payment for their care.  Many of these caregivers sacrifice jobs, family time, and personal financial resources to care for their loved ones.

This informal caregiving system provides the majority of long term care in the United States—more than what Medicare and Medicaid pay for combined.  This informal caregiving system is also the backbone of the American long term care system.  Without family caregivers providing free and reduced long term care services, the American long term care system would collapse under the costs of the care that would be required to be paid by Medicare and Medicaid.

Family caregivers are an often forgotten group by their families, friends and communities.  Their social lives are limited because of their caregiving duties.  Their marriages often end because of the stress of caring for another family member.  They face financial hardship because of the economic costs of their caregiving duties.  And, caregivers often suffer from depression, hypertension, diabetes, and other stress-related illnesses brought on by the stress and physical burdens of caregiving.

Caregivers, while they may not ask, need help from their families, friends and communities.  Here are a few ways you can help a family member or friend who is a current caregiver:

1.  Send a supportive card or letter.  This simple act can brighten a caregiver’s day and remind them there are people who care for them.  If you live at a distance, this is the perfect way to show you care.  When sending a card or letter, refrain from making suggestions on how the caregiver might be able to do a better job.  Keep your cards and letters positive and share happy news about you and your family.  You may want to include a Starbucks gift card so that the caregiver can have a quick cup of coffee on you.

2.  Give the caregiver a personal care pampering basket.  Create a small basket of their favorite lotions, fluffy socks, soothing music, a scented candle, and bath salts.  Caregivers generally do not indulge themselves and need to be reminded to do so.  A caregiver pampering basket may do just that.

3.  Bring a premade meal to the caregiver’s home.  You can do this as a one-time act, on a regular basis, or organize a meal calendar where the members of a group sign up to bring a meal over the course of a week or month.  Make sure when you bring the meal, you bring the main dish, such as a casserole, plus all the fixings, including a vegetable and dessert.  Also, include paper plates and plastic silverware in the meal pack so the caregiver doesn’t have to clean up afterward.  Check to see if there are any food allergies or diet restrictions in advance.

4.  Offer to do housework.  Many household tasks are difficult to do when someone is caring for an elderly or disabled loved one.  Offer to come in and do laundry, dust, clean bathrooms, vacuum or sweep and mop for a caregiver.  These are time consuming tasks that may not be completed due to interruptions associated with caregiving.  If you are personally unable to do it because of distance or physical limitations, offer to pay a professional cleaning service to come in and help.

5.  Offer to do the yard work.  Caregivers often have a difficult time allowing someone to come into their home to clean house.  This may be for personal reasons or it may be that the individual for whom they are caring reacts badly to the presence of others.  Yard work can be done without intruding into a caregiver’s home.  Yard work is also one of the last things that a caregiver has the time or ability to do.  Remember, it is difficult to supervise a dementia patient and use a lawnmower at the same time.

6.  Offer to run an errand for the caregiver.  When you go to the store, call before you leave and ask if there is anything you pick up for the caregiver.  You can also schedule a time each week to go by the caregiver’s home and pick up a list of groceries or other needed items and bring them back.  Since you are already going to the store, this allows you to assure the caregiver that it is not an inconvenience, which will assuage the guilt that caregivers often feel when they ask for or allow others to help them.

7.  Offer to provide some respite care.  Caregivers spend the majority of their day focused on the care and support of another human being.  They take no time for themselves.  They need time to care for themselves, run their personal errands, attend children’s sporting or school events, or just have quiet time for themselves.  Offer to spend a couple of hours taking care of their loved one so they can go to a doctor’s appointment, do personal banking, get a massage, or just spend a couple of hours sitting quietly without the burdens of caregiving.

8.  If you are a family member that lives at a distance, offer to come and visit for a few days and be the primary caregiver while you are there.  This will allow the caregiver to have a few days to get caught up on personal business they have neglected and take time to recharge.  It can also reduce the amount of family conflict and resentment that often results when one family member provides care while they others continue their lives without caregiving duties.

9.  Visit.  Caregivers often lose most of their social contacts because they have a difficult time engaging in social events while fulfilling caregiving duties.  Friends and family members should make an effort to regularly visit caregivers for social visits to keep the caregiver in the social support system.  Make sure you call before you visit to be sure visit is not interfering with needed hands-on caregiving such as bathing or therapies.  Also remember, visiting with a caregiver is sometimes like visiting with parents of young children.  The caregiver may have to take time during your visit to redirect a loved one with dementia or to provide some assistance.  Don’t let that deter your visit.  The caregiver needs your social interaction and will appreciate your patience.

10.  Help them with their holiday shopping and present wrapping.  Caregivers have little time to go holiday shopping or even wrap the presents they might purchase on line.  Offer to help them with holiday shopping by shopping for the items on their list.  Then help wrap and tag the presents so that they will be ready for gift-giving times.

If you have other suggestions for helping caregivers, please leave them in the comments below.