The challenges of aging become even more complex when there is a sick or disabled spouse or adult child depending on the senior for care.
About 7% of caregivers are 75 or older, according to a 2015 study from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. They spend an average of 34 hours a week helping a spouse, adult child or sibling with activities like bathing, managing money and taking medicine–sometimes even performing medical and nursing tasks.
Going it alone
Interestingly, the study found that older caregivers were less likely than younger ones to have other unpaid help with those duties. The typical older caregiver isn’t using paid assistance, either. Yet this group reported little to no physical and financial strain, and only moderate emotional stress, as a result of caregiving. They’re either coping remarkably well or very reluctant to complain about any burdens they might be facing.
Older caregivers can find it especially hard to ask for help, says Deborah Hustace, RN, MBA, director of clinical operations at BrightStar Care, a national franchise that provides medical and non-medical home care. Ideas about self-sufficiency and the obligation of families to take care of their own may be deeply ingrained. So family members living outside the primary caregiver’s household, as well as friends who want to help, need to be proactive about offering assistance, Eustace says. Maybe they can step in to relieve a caregiver who needs time off to attend a support group meeting, go for a walk or just enjoy a leisurely, healthy meal.
For older spouses acting as caregivers for one another, one of the biggest adjustments can be the shift in the dynamics of their relationship.
“Whereas before, maybe that care recipient spouse was very independent and was more the leader in the pair, you might see changes in roles that can be confusing and challenging,” Hustace says.
A couple’s daily communication and intimacy can also be affected, she adds. All of these changes can stir up a range of emotions, from anxiety and guilt to anger and frustration.
“One of the most important things is making sure they know these feelings are OK,” Hustace says.
Physical limitations are another challenge for aging caregivers. Limited mobility may make it hard for them to search for a mentally disabled child or a spouse with Alzheimer’s who wanders off. They may risk injuring themselves trying to assist a loved one who has fallen. Personal emergency response devices like the GreatCall Lively Mobile and GPS tracking devices can empower older caregivers to look after their charges without wearing themselves out.
Speaking of physical strength, Hustace notes that it’s crucial for caregivers to get regular exercise. “If you can’t be healthy, you can’t help that loved one,” she says.
For a list of easy exercises for older caregivers to try, check out this article.
Another piece of advice from Hustace: “Educate yourself.” Learning as much as you can about a family member’s illness or disability can help ease the emotional stress of caring for them, she says. Search online for reputable health information sources like the National Institutes of Health, which has a special site on senior health.
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