Health & Fitness

If you take care of a loved one, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too

Family caregivers spend countless hours tending to loved ones and need what professionals call “respite care.”
Family caregivers spend countless hours tending to loved ones and need what professionals call “respite care.” TNS

November is National Family Caregiver Month, making this the perfect time to recognize Idaho’s more than 300,000 family caregivers and their contributions to our communities.

I contacted the Idaho Caregiver Alliance (ICA) to talk about what caregivers and caregiving mean to families, caregivers and communities in Idaho.

Family caregivers are a very important part of what makes Idaho special. Collectively, caregivers across our state provide thousands of hours of loving care to children, spouses, other relatives and friends — worth nearly $2 billion to our economy.

These numbers are growing. Family care allows people with mental and physical disabilities, debilitating illnesses and those in the last stage of life to remain in their home or the home of a loved one instead of a care facility or hospital.

This is beneficial to both the care recipient and the care provider in many ways. But it can also be a very challenging process for the caregiver to find the financial and emotional support needed to keep up what is often a 24/7 care schedule.

Recognition of who caregivers are, the supports required and the self-care needed to keep them going are the reasons behind National Family Caregiver Month.

While groups such as the Idaho Caregiver Alliance advocate for improved resources and recognition of caregivers, there are powerful things we can all do in the meantime to support and assist the caregivers in our lives — ourselves included.

What is respite?

Many people who provide family care are not comfortable with the title “caregiver.” They are just doing what anyone would do for a loved one: providing the best, most comprehensive care possible for those who need it.

As such, people who provide care don’t often realize how important it is to care for themselves in order to keep going. Even caregivers who identify as such are often uncomfortable accepting help with their caregiving process.

Frequently when caregivers DO realize that having a break would be helpful, services are hard to find and expensive. The break I’m referring to is what professionals call “respite care.”

Respite care is provided by people, agencies, or community members who periodically take over care duties for a few hours, allowing caregivers a chance to catch their breath. Having such breaks or respite is vitally important to a caregiver’s well-being.

Studies show that respite time is critical for caregivers to do the work they do. Many who provide around-the-clock care are also trying to balance work and other family responsibilities.

Without a break, caregivers can suffer from physical, emotional and economic distress. The caregiving role also is not one that most people plan for. Unexpected events frequently place people in the caregiver role.

Added to the challenges caregivers face is the absence of a toolbox of information and support systems necessary to successfully handle this role. This is where caregivers are forced to get creative, and community members can swing into action.

Take a break

Perhaps the most important thing that caregivers can do for themselves is realize that, although they are superheroes to their loved ones, they do not have super powers and they need to take that break — or respite. The Idaho 2-1-1 CareLine is a good starting place for locating and learning about various respite care providers and services.

Classes and support groups that offer training on stress management and care strategies are valuable, and are available through various nonprofit organizations. Many of these classes offer scholarship options that make them affordable, if not free.

Respite also can be self-directed while more formal options are located.

Small things like taking a timeout in a quiet space may be just the boost needed to get through the day.

Learning to recognize when stress levels have reached a point where such small breaks are necessary is important. Rather than doing an extra chore, running an extra errand or making an extra call, giving yourself permission to sit down, read a favorite book, watch a show or savor a cup of tea is a form of self-care that can make a real mental and physical difference.

Learning to be more “body aware” is another piece to the respite puzzle. When we become very busy and focused, we often forget to listen to what our body is telling us — and sometimes it is telling us to slow down!

Body-awareness can be cultivated through five-, 10- or 20-minute meditation breaks. Called “Mindfulness Meditation,” this form of relaxation helps reconnect a person with their body by sitting in any comfortable space and re-directing the mind from the stress of the day to an awareness of each part of the body in stages.

This process involves deep breathing, which science has shown to be a way of lowering blood pressure and inducing a sense of well-being. The internet is a wonderful tool for finding low-cost or free websites that offer such meditation exercises. Many free smartphone applications are available that offer these same types of meditations, and they can be done while on the go.

For those who aren’t caregivers themselves, learning who the caregivers are in our lives, communities and workplaces is essential. Caregivers are resourceful and resilient. However, when concerned friends and neighbors offer to sit in for a few moments, run an errand, or assist with meal preparation, those gestures help caregivers to feel supported, recognized and included in their communities. Sometimes just asking a caregiver how they, themselves, are doing — keeping the communication door open — is all it takes.

So during November — National Family Caregiver Month — take some time to recognize yourself or a caregiver in your life for the amazing work they do. Also take some time to investigate or provide respite care opportunities for yourself or another caregiver.

Let’s let November be a time to explore and advocate for resources that give caregivers a well-deserved break.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch, master of health sciences, is the state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Find out more about Department of Health and Welfare services at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.

Tiffeny A. Stees, master of social work candidate at Boise State University, research assistant and an intern for the Center for the Study of Aging and the Idaho Caregiver Alliance, contributed to this article.

Some Idaho resources about caregiving

Visit this webpage on the 2-1-1 Idaho Careline site to find more about respite support: idahocareline.org/elibrary/respitecare.html.

The Boise State Center for the Study of Aging has online resources and information where you can learn more about caregiver and respite support: hs.boisestate.edu/csa/caregiver.

Get the Idaho Lifespan Family Caregiver Action Plan at hs.boisestate.edu/csa/idaho-lifespan-family-caregiver-action-plan. It’s a 27-page document that will help guide you in the caregiving process.

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