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November is National Caregivers Month

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A friend recently told me a story about taking care of her 96-year-old mother. "I feel helpless most times, when she insists on feeding herself, and her hand starts to shake, and she stops and she cries. Seeing her lose more and more of the independence she enjoyed all her life... just in those simple and seemingly insignificant moments -- dressing herself, making coffee, reading a book -- it breaks my heart."

Unfortunately, my friend is not alone. Today, 29 percent of the entire population of the United States -- that's 65 million people -- provides care for another person. [1] The value of the service that family caregivers provide is estimated to be $375 billion per year. [2]

Even if you're one of the 65 million people caring for someone, you may not know that November is National Caregivers Month. While we routinely mark the most mundane occasions, I'm always surprised at how little attention National Caregivers Month receives, considering just how many people serve as caregivers and the profound impact their work has on society.

The total aggregate lost wages, pension and social security benefit for caregivers of parents is nearly $3 trillion. Adult children 50 years and older who work and provide care to a parent are more likely to have fair or poor health than those who do not provide care to their parents. [3]

I've worked with the aging in the New York area for 15 years, and while caring for them is hard and often emotionally draining, there are ways to make it easier. So this seems like the perfect time to both pay tribute to these caregivers and provide some advice on things they -- and the people they care for -- can do to lessen the burden.

The first thing caregivers can do is to acknowledge that they need assistance. I've consistently found that friends, neighbors and co-workers are more than happy to help caregivers once they understand the burden they're under. Awareness is critical.

Another key to successfully caring for an aging parent is to create a plan -- ideally before you're in the middle of a difficult situation, when decisions are made in haste out of raw emotion rather than with the thoughtfulness and care required. Developing such a plan involves opening a clear line of communication, which can be challenging when the parent goes from being the giver of care to the one who needs care. It's important to be as open and honest as possible during this process. Often expectations on both sides are unmet, simply because they are unexpressed.

Explaining to an aging parent that one's time is limited due to work or other family priorities is essential. In turn, it's just as important to listen to the parent and understand how difficult transitions, however slight, are to them. Unfortunately, navigating family dynamics doesn't get easier over time. Often, the same issues that separated kids from parents during childhood still exist. Communication is the key, and often an adult child or a parent may need an impartial person to assist in making sure everyone is heard. This is what non-profit organizations like JASA do through skilled social workers and volunteers. But sometimes a friend can do the job, too.

Caregivers' stress levels and associated mental and physical decline affect the quality of care that they are able to provide which, in turn, can result in increased suffering for the already frail and vulnerable care recipient. Having someone to lean on who isn't intimately involved can be a significant help.

So next time someone you know mentions helping a parent with a medical crisis, don't think of it as just small talk. Even if you're lucky enough not to find yourself in this situation, the odds are good that it will happen to someone you care about. Use National Caregivers Month as a reminder to get involved and ask how you can help. You might be surprised by just how much you can do, even just by lending a sympathetic ear.

REFERENCES:

1. Caregiving in the United States; National Alliance for Caregiving in Collaboration with AARP (11/09)

2. Evercare Survey of the Economic Downturn and Its Impact on Family Caregiving; National Alliance for Caregiving and Evercare (3/09)

3. The Met Life Study of Caregiving costs to Working Caregivers (6/11)

Aileen Gitelson is CEO of JASA (Jewish Association Serving the Aging) -- New York's largest agency serving older adults -- providing social, recreational, health, culture and educational programs for older adults, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

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