Healthcare in America is rapidly changing, with professionals seeking new ways to contribute to patient care. As a geropsychologist, the branch of psychology that focuses the aging population, Daniel Paulson, Ph.D., associate professor in the UCF Department of Psychology, discussed the importance of caring for caregivers as part of the UCF Pegasus Health Seminar Series.
“Caregiving is the act of providing unpaid assistance and support to family members or acquaintances who have physical, psychological or developmental needs,” said Dr. Paulson. The basic goals of caregiving include:
- Honoring a loved one’s wishes
- Preserving independence as long as possible
- Postponing care in a nursing home or other type of long-term care facility
The importance of caregivers cannot be understated, with approximately 44 million people fulfilling these roles in the U.S. That translates into an annual healthcare savings of $500 billion.
While many caregivers can experience tremendous feelings of self-worth from helping loved ones, Dr. Paulson said, the impact of the “caregiver burden” is significant. Strain, distress and frustration are very typical.
“Feelings of depression also are common among caregivers, especially when you consider that the outcome of your work is ultimately the death of a loved one,” he said. Beyond the psychological impact, caregiving has a profound effect on the body.
We know many caregivers don’t age as well as their peers, said Dr. Paulson. In fact, one study that examined levels of stress hormones in the bodies of various populations found that caregivers had more stress hormones than police officers, primarily due to the duration of their stress. Caregivers also are more prone to bruising, catching colds, experience higher rates of vascular disease and are slower to recover from illnesses than those in the general population.
“Caregivers often feel extreme guilt taking care of their own needs, and this is made even more difficult due to the isolation many of them experience,” he said. “The first thing I tell people is that the only way they can effectively care for another person is if they take care of themselves. Part of doing that is finding resources to help with the caregiving process.”
Consider what assistance you need for the activities of daily living. Transferring the person from the bed to chair, for example, can be dangerous for both people if not done correctly. Many physical therapists work with families inside the home to teach proper transfer techniques. Ask your physician for a recommendation, he said.
Dealing with medications also can be overwhelming, but some pharmacies now offer solutions like pill packages that are presorted by day. Dr. Paulson recommends that caregivers have a conversation with their pharmacist about the options. You may need to plan a little farther ahead because this service, while generally free, can take a few extra days. At the very least, try sorting pills with weekly pillboxes that can be purchased at any drugstore.
Getting away to run errands can be difficult for caregivers without backup support. Dr. Paulson recommends that when family and friends offer help, take them up on it. If that’s not available, contact an organization like the Alzheimer’s Association. In fact, they even offer small grants for caregivers to hire a professional to sit with a loved one for a few hours, allowing time for errands and caregiver appointments.
When a loved one must transition to an assisted living or a similar type of facility, the caregiving role is not yet over, said Dr. Paulson. The role transitions into that an advocate for the loved one, ensuring that their care is properly provided in a timely manner. Also, spending time with the loved one in the facility is important, especially when they are cognitively aware, but not physically able to care for themselves. Unfortunately, personnel in care facilities don’t often have time to provide mental stimulation to patients.
And finally, emotional support for caregivers is key to their own wellbeing, as well as the quality of care they’re able to provide. In fact, organized support groups like the one run by Dr. Paulson at UCF Pegasus Health allow caregivers to share their experiences with people going through the same thing, learn from one another, and discover new resources available to help assist with their caregiving roles. Many churches and community organizations also offer similar groups, which are typically free to attend.
For more information about caregiver support groups at UCF Pegasus Health, visit UCFPegasusHealth.org.