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Caregiving Basics: Things to Prepare When Taking Care of Seniors

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Caregiving is almost never a job - it’s much more of a calling. Those who do provide care in medical settings to patients of all types are known for their selfless attitudes and their unflagging energy. However, most caregivers don’t even do so in a hospital setting but instead in homes around the country. Providing care to seniors is even more intimidating and demanding, especially with the types of challenges that the elderly might face. If you’re thinking of becoming a senior caregiver yourself, here are some important facts you need to know so you can prepare yourself for the task at hand physically, mentally, and emotionally.

What is Caregiving?

Caregiving is the act of  providing care for someone’s daily needs when they cannot provide for them without help. Care takes many forms, and can include simple tasks such as addressing the physical needs of someone who can’t move without assistance. At the same time, many caregivers also provide for the emotional needs of someone as well, especially as these people are often in need of round-the-clock care and attention.

The demand for caregivers is expected to rise by more than 633,000 jobs from 2014 through 2024, according to industry experts (Professional Caregiving in the United States, n.d.). In many instances, however, caregivers aren’t paid workers hired by someone who needs help. Either because of the lack of professional caregivers or because of the associated costs of long-term care (which are often out of reach for many uninsured or underinsured Americans), family members or close friends often step up instead. These selfless individuals help their loved ones after they suffer debilitating accidents and injuries or they develop medical conditions that leave them unable to care for themselves. 

Not everyone is cut out to play the role of caregiver, especially when caring for seniors. In addition to the compassion and empathy that you need to be willing to provide for the many needs of an aging individual, you also need to have nearly-inexhaustible patience as well, especially in cases where a senior is suffering from age-related dementia and may not be acting rationally. We’re not talking about being a professional caregiver, here; taking on senior care for a close friend or beloved family member can be absolutely grueling, especially when the care you’re providing ventures past doing things like bringing in the mail, putting out the trash, and folding the laundry. You also can’t be squeamish; when caregiving involves helping seniors with physical issues related to bathing or using the bathroom, you’ve got to be willing to clean up messes with grace and dignity. All of this, while also serving as a friend and companion to the senior you’re caring for, is what you’re in for as a caregiver.

The Role A Caregiver Plays

As mentioned above, a caregiver wears a lot of hats. To give a better overview of what kind of tasks might be expected of you if you slip into a caregiver role, we’ve gone right to the experts at LSU Health New Orleans’ School of Medicine and the American Cancer Society (2014):

First and foremost, caregivers are part of a healthcare team. It’s not just you and the senior you’re caring for on this team - it’s other friends and family members as well as the senior’s medical providers. Caregivers often find themselves working in close concert with medical providers, ensuring that a senior takes their medication regularly, helps to manage any side effects from medication or treatment, and reporting problems to the medical team. Since you’ll be in close contact with the senior for long periods of time, you’ll be able to help decide if treatments are working if any as well. As if that’s not enough, you’ll also be a point of contact between other family members and friends to keep them informed of any changes. 

Good caregivers are a vital health resource. They keep paperwork in order for prescriptions and upcoming doctor appointments and tests, and are often the one person who has the clearest picture of the senior’s physical, mental, and emotional health overall, as they’re present during medical exams and doctor visits. Meanwhile, caregivers are there to ensure that the senior gets to live as normal a life as possible even in the face of their present physical, mental, and emotional limitations. You’ll need to develop a sense of what the senior needs and how they communicate their needs, learn to anticipate those needs, and to be prepared to help a senior live their best life.

Preparing to Take Care of Seniors

Providing care for seniors is not something that you just know how to do - you might have natural amounts of patience, compassion, and empathy, but you’ll need to hone these skills and others in order to provide proper levels of care for a friend or loved one in need. Depending on the issues or conditions an individual senior faces, such as hearing or vision loss, incontinence, age-related dementia, or any other dozen or so issues associated with old age, you’ll have to prepare in different ways.

However, there are some universal skills that you can hone that will do you well in senior care situations. Communication is, again, one of the most important, with the Master of Science in Nursing program from Regis College stressing the importance of being respectful and sincere, building rapport, exhibiting empathy, and, as always, being eternally patient (2020). Beyond these general recommendations, it’s also important to understand the scope of the care you’ll be providing. There are different levels of “daily living” help that a senior might need. Cooking and preparing meals for a senior, or other complex activities like running errands, shopping, and buying necessities might be on the agenda. Likewise seniors with mobility issues may need help getting in and out of bed, bathing and/or going to the bathroom, and self-feeding. Oftentimes it’s a combination of many different needs that have to be met. Many caregiver resources also recommend making a senior’s home safe by ensuring the senior might not trip, fall, or otherwise hurt themselves and to establish a daily scheduled routine to provide structure and stability for both seniors and caregivers (Sonas Home Health Care, 2020)

Caregiving Amid a Pandemic 

Caregiving is an old profession indeed, as friends and family members have been caring for the seniors in their lives since humans moved out of the trees and started living in communal groups. However, the realities of today often lead to problems with traditional caregiving. Nowhere has this been more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic.. Because of the danger the coronavirus represents to seniors, especially those with existing health conditions, there was no choice but for new methods of caregiving to be developed to protect both the caregiver and the senior.

Thankfully, epidemiologists and medical experts are agreed that many of the same ways that you can limit COVID exposure in the general population - such as adequate hand-washing, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks, and social distancing - will also go a long way in keeping a senior safe from COVID (Ohio AgrAbility, n.d.). However, with the stakes understandably much higher, it’s recommended that you act out of an abundance of caution when it comes to keeping the senior in your care safe. This includes monitoring the senior’s health even closer than normally and also managing any underlying chronic conditions carefully to keep your senior in the best of possible health. 

Providing the Best Care for Seniors 

People from all walks of life can end up needing a caregiver. Accidents and illness don’t discriminate based on age, after all. However, it is simply an inescapable fact that our bodies and minds often work less efficiently as we age. Thus, the best caregivers will know how to provide the best explicit care for seniors and the unique challenges they face.

One of the more common issues that seniors face is both hearing loss. It can be a frustrating experience for both a caregiver and the senior if it becomes impossible to communicate. You will need to learn some common techniques to help that communication, such as putting your hand on a senior’s shoulder or calling their name to get their attention before telling them something important. Medical experts also recommend having good lighting, reducing background noise by muting the television while at home or sitting away from crowded areas while in a social setting, speaking clearly and without rushing, and a little louder than normal - and be patient when you need to repeat yourself (Wills, 2020).

This isn’t the only issue that seniors tend to face, but it is one of the most common. Other important facets of providing care to seniors have already been stressed, but they bear repeating: patience, empathy, and respect will help you provide care to just about everyone, but it’s especially helpful with seniors.

Taking Care of Yourself: Managing the Stress of Caregiving

Working as a caregiver for a friend or family member is absolutely grueling. It can often become a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job, and such a life is simply not sustainable. You’ll eventually buckle under the stress! That’s why it’s so crucial to ensure you take steps to manage caregiver-related stress so that you can continue to function in your role without suffering the negative effects. The following strategies, published by the Mayo Clinic specifically to help with caregiver stress, are all excellent starting points for de-stressing yourself (2020).

  • Be prepared to accept help from others. Mutual friends and loved ones can easily help out with running errands, picking up groceries, or even just taking the person you care for on a walk once or twice a week. 
  • Focus on your own limitations. Nobody is a “perfect” caregiver, so don’t feel guilty if you feel that you’re unable to provide for your senior’s every need. You’re doing your best, and that’s what matters.
  • Be realistic with your goals. Prioritize your tasks; break them into smaller, more manageable steps where possible. Rely on a daily routine for stability - and don’t be afraid to say no to requests that are just too much.
  • Make connections in your community. Resources like housekeeping, meal delivery, or transportation might be available, and many communities even hold free classes to help you learn the knowledge and skills needed.
  • Find social support. Whether it’s through a caregiver support group or just a tightly-knit circle of family and friends, every little bit helps. Being around people who know what you’re going through can be a huge relief.
  • Finally, don’t neglect your own health. Caregivers often work so hard for the seniors they’re caring for that their own health deteriorates as a result. Do your best to eat nutritious meals, get a little bit of moderate exercise when you can, and get a full 8 hours of sleep. Finally, make sure you don’t skip any of your own doctor visits either. 

References:

American Cancer Society. (2014). What It Takes to Be a Caregiver.
    https://www.medschool.lsuhsc.edu/lungcancer/docs/what%20is%20takes%20to%20be%20a%20caregiver_american%20cancer%20society.pdf

Master of Science in Nursing. (2020, August 1). 10 Tips for Nurses to Effectively Communicate with Elderly Patients. Regis College Online.
    https://online.regiscollege.edu/blog/elderly-patient-care/

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, December 16). Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself. Mayo Clinic.
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/caregiver-stress/art-20044784

Ohio State University CFAES. (n.d.). Caregiving during a pandemic or illness | Ohio AgrAbility. Ohio AgrAbility.
    https://agrability.osu.edu/caregiver-support-network/health-tips-caregivers/caregiving-during-pandemic-or-illness

UnitedHealthcare Community and State. (2017, August 1). Professional Caregiving in the United States.
    https://www.uhccommunityandstate.com/articles/improving-professional-caregiving-in-the-united-states--challeng.html

Wills, B. (2020, July 10). Understanding How To Provide Care To Elderly Patients | Ameritech. Ameritech College of Healthcare.
    https://www.ameritech.edu/blog/provide-care-elderly-patients/