Millions of families need a caregiver to help with an ailing and/or aging family member.

Limited family finances force many families to rely on relatives and friends to provide help. In a majority of these cases, there is one family member who is responsible for most, if not all, of the care. When the default caregiver is a family member, there is usually little to no background education in home health care. Few of these caregivers have medical training, nor an understanding of a disease process, nor of aging. Yet, family caregivers begin their assignments at a demanding pace of balancing hands-on care, medical appointments, personal matters, and chores.

While trying to deal with their new responsibilities, some caregivers encounter new challenges. Why is mom, who has dementia, suddenly unable to follow basic instructions? Why is dad so combative during care routines? They may be overwhelmed that they cannot do more to assist a loved one with pain management.

The caregivers’ stress begins to show itself as he or she is filled with self-doubt and frustration.

Then there is the added problem of resentment when capable siblings cannot find the time or resources to help with their parents’ care. It’s easy for caregivers to struggle with anger along with their stress.

There are many family caregivers who have enough past experience with multi-tasking that they can balance the demands of the job with their own needs, but many struggle to manage.

They become angry and short-fused, and their mood is visible to the world. If you are one of those caregivers who is naturally adept at handling your caregiving role, or if you are infinitely patient, it would be easy to look at a caregiving daughter snapping at her mom and think, ”What a terrible caregiver!” It would be understandable that you would see a disheveled son outside of his father’s neglected home and think the son is an incompetent caregiver who needs a visit from Adult Protective Services.

Proceed with caution in your judgment.

The United States is facing a rapidly growing population of people who need caregivers. Many cannot afford them and our government doesn’t provide caregivers, free of charge, to everyone in need. Family members and volunteer caregivers fill the void. Forty million unpaid caregivers, to be more accurate. We need to support these caregivers because we, as a community, really need them. It’s important to help if we can. A kind word of encouragement, a delivered meal, a chat over a cup of coffee.

We need to intervene on behalf of their loved ones if it is appropriate, of course. If there is harmful neglect or outright abuse in any form (physical, emotional, sexual, financial) we need to contact the police or our local Adult Protective Services. I believe that all caregiving arrangements are spiritual agreements between both parties. There is much to be learned and gained from the situation. But sometimes the arrangement requires an intervention from an outsider who can say, “This just isn’t working anymore.” That doesn’t negate the spiritual agreement. The deal may just have run its course. Time to move on.

So, if we observe a family caregiver who is taking a poorly dressed, poorly groomed parent to the doctor’s office, remember that the point is that the caregiver is making sure their loved one is getting medical care. If you see a family caregiver becoming frustrated because his parent is acting out in a restaurant, recognize that the loved one is on an outing and is being nourished.

The fact is, there are many caregivers who have no business owning a cat, let alone being responsible for a frail human being. Yet, here they are, signed up for duty, taking care of their loved ones because their sense of obligation is strong. They believe they are the best option their loved one has for care, so they are trying to do the best they know how to do. It might not meet your standard of care nor mine but the job is getting done.

As these caregivers, appointed by default, sacrifice their health, financial security, and livelihoods for their loved ones, we should tip our hats to them for caring enough to try until a better solution comes along.

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