Make Room for Mom: Tips for New Caregivers

Photo showing a patient and his caregiver meeting with their DoctorYour mom is moving in and you now have a new role - 'caregiver.' If you are caring for a parent or loved one, you are not alone. Roughly 66 million people in the United States serve as unpaid caregivers to those with chronic and long-term care needs, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving in Bethesda, MD.

Taking on a caregiver role - and the responsibilities that come with it - can be both challenging and rewarding. For Air Force Veteran Master Sgt. Stephen Grant, 26 years of military training did not prepare him for one of his hardest jobs yet - overseeing the care of his parents.

Grant bought a home within minutes of his parents' place. He moved his family from Nebraska back to Maine to help his father care for his mother, who has Parkinson's disease and dementia. "It's quite a balancing act - trying to ensure the care giving aspect is covered, while you keep your own sanity.

"What makes it especially frustrating for a Veteran who has spent his career solving complex problems, now faced with the illness of a loved one, is that you are powerless to 'fix' things - it's a very bitter pill to swallow. At that point, I reached out to VA."

Valuable Advice

Grant worked with a counselor and joined a support group for caregivers of people with dementia. Joining a support group is the first piece of advice Grant offers other caregivers. "The most valuable thing I have experienced is interacting with other caregivers going through the same thing," he said. In addition to the support, "you can pick up some good tips that you won't get in a caregiver class. Getting other perspectives is especially helpful."

For Grant, caregiving is all about perspective. "When you get a little too close to the situation, you lose perspective. You need to have something going on in your life other than caregiving, because it can be all-consuming if you let it." Grant tries to get his father, the primary caregiver for his mother, out of the house as much as possible.

Charlene and Ralph Grant celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010Caregivers are inclined to overlook their own health and well-being, according to Drs. Linda O. Nichols and Jennifer Martindale-Adams, co-directors of the Caregiver Center at the VA Medical Center Memphis. "Caregivers often become so overwhelmed by their caregiving role that they neglect their own health and warning signs that they are getting depressed, overburdened or sick," Nichols said.

If you are a caregiver, make time for physical activity and getting together with friends, eat a balanced diet, get enough rest and learn to manage stress. To help you get started, visit the VA Caregiver Support Program. The center has tools that may help you recognize depression and burnout.

As a caregiver, take time to register yourself on My HealtheVet; you do not have to be a Veteran to use many of the features in My HealtheVet. You can use the tools to track health measures, such as blood pressure, pain, blood sugar and more. Food and activity journals can also help you track exercise and diet.

Nichols and Martindale-Adams offer these additional caregiver tips:

Communicate. If you are caring for children in addition to a parent - or have health concerns of your own - you need to be especially thoughtful about how you manage your household, time, finances and other resources. To help you begin, have a family meeting. Talk about expectations and how your lives may change. As your responsibilities increase, you will probably need family members to pitch in. They can help with chores, meals, driving and other daily activities. If you do not have other family members, you may want to discuss getting outside help, especially if you work outside the home.

Educate yourself. You may become the manager of your parent's medicines and doctor appointments. My HealtheVet has information about managing medications. You can use the personal health journal to record your parent's health history and lab and test results. If your parent is a Veteran, use My HealtheVet to order his or her prescriptions online.

Be understanding. Treat your parent with love, patience and respect. If your parent's behavior becomes difficult because of depression, dementia, or chronic pain, learn about their condition. Learn what to expect and how to handle the behavior so you do not get angry with or blame your parent.

Create a safe house. Make necessary changes to your or your parent's home to ensure safety. You might have to remove throw rugs, install grab bars or improve lighting, especially on stairwells.

Get help when you need it. If you have other responsibilities that take you away from caregiving, or just need a break, respite care can fill the gap on a short-term basis. If your parent is a Veteran, you could look for help close to home through VA's Caregiver Support Line and Caregiver Support Coordinators. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will not provide respite care if your parent is not a Veteran. However, you might be able to find help in your community or ask a relative or friend.

"Don't overlook your own health and well-being," said Martindale-Adams. "You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of others."

Read More

VA Caregiver Support - Useful information for caregivers of Veterans

Geriatric Care - Information about caring for older Veterans with complex needs

Updated August 13, 2012