Take Care to Give Care: Nourishing Our Nation's Caregivers

11/02/2016 10:26 am ET

November marks the 22nd anniversary of National Family Caregivers Month, where we recognize our nation’s family caregivers. According to AARP, an estimated 43.5 million adults in the United States have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child in the prior 12 months, and approximately 34.2 million Americans within that group have provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the prior 12 months. The value of the services provided by these caregivers continues to increase, with an estimated economic value of $470 billion in 2013, up from $450 billion in 2009 and $375 billion in 2007.

Since last November, we have seen important progress in caregiving policy. The Assisting Caregivers Today (ACT) Caucus in Congress, founded in 2015, continued its work in advocating for caregiver-friendly laws. The RAISE Family Caregivers Act passed the Senate. The Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable (CARE) Act is now law in 18 states and Puerto Rico and is being considered in 12 other states. In short, there is a growing awareness at the national and state levels.

This November’s theme for National Family Caregivers Month is “Take Care to Give Care.” Similar to putting one’s own oxygen mask on before assisting others on an airplane, caregivers must take care of themselves before they can properly take care of others—beginning with nutrition.

Proper nutrition starts with the caregiver. Many family caregivers may be overwhelmed and not feel as though they have time to eat a healthy diet. However, the best way to ensure that caregivers are able to continue to care for their loved one is through remaining energetic and healthy, which starts with good nutrition. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website is a starting point for caregivers to find resources; it has recipe ideas, tips on what constitutes a balanced diet, and more.

Good nutrition for care recipients, particularly those who are older adults, is also crucial. As many as half of all older adults are at risk for malnutrition, a condition which can lead to more complications, falls, and hospital readmissions. Older adults with chronic health conditions are particularly susceptible to malnutrition—a population which is more likely to be cared for. Well-nourished older adults have better muscle tone, fewer readmissions, and lower hospital costs, which makes a family caregiver’s job easier as well. The Defeat Malnutrition Today coalition is working to raise awareness of this issue and promote policy solutions; their linked website has resources on identifying and combating malnutrition. If a caregiver suspects their loved one is at risk for or has malnutrition, they can use a simple screening tool, like the Malnutrition Screening Tool, and then contact their loved one’s healthcare professional to discuss their malnutrition concerns.

Nutrition education for caregivers is vital—not only for the caregiver’s own diet, but for the care recipient’s diet as well, especially for care recipients who are older. According to the AARP Foundation, many older adults rely on friends and family for nutrition information. Thus, nutrition education for caregivers is highly important. Further, many caregivers are providing care for older adults with special dietary needs. It is critical for caregivers to talk to their loved one’s doctors and/or to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) about the best dietary plan for their loved one if their loved one has a chronic condition which might require a special diet.

There are also many online resources for caregivers to receive nutrition education. God’s Love We Deliver, an organization providing medically-tailored meals to homebound patients, has developed a booklet, “Nutrition Tips for Caregivers,” which has information about special diets, nutrition basics, home-delivered meals and more. The Families and Work Institute, NANASP, and Working Mother Media created a toolkit, “Employer Elder Care Toolkit: Focus on Therapeutic Nutrition,” which has a section on therapeutic nutrition for caregivers.

Further, access to a strong safety net, including nutrition benefits, is important for caregivers and/or care recipients who struggle to make ends meet. Caregivers and those they care for need to make sure they are receiving all they are entitled to. For example, three out of five seniors who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don’t participate, meaning that 5.2 million seniors are missing out on benefits. The National Council on Aging has a BenefitsCheckUp tool where caregivers and their loved ones may see if they are eligible for an array of benefits.

This month is an opportunity for this nation to acknowledge and appreciate one of the toughest jobs in the world—being a family caregiver. But, it is not enough to declare a month. As a society, we need to have a more concerted effort to provide caregivers with meaningful help, including fully funded respite care and a family caregiver tax credit, as has been proposed by several members of Congress.

“Taking care to give care” is vital for family caregivers. The burdens of caregiving may compromise the health and proper nutritional intake of family caregivers, and deterioration of their health can severely impact caregivers, putting them at risk of chronic disease and harming their quality of life—as well as the quality of life of their care recipients. Their burden is reduced when their loved ones are healthier as well, which involves good nutrition. All in all, nutrition is the key to supporting caregiving.

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