When elderly loved ones can no longer fully care for themselves, the responsibility is commonly taken on by family members. What often begins as part-time help – such as paying bills or driving Mom or Dad to appointments – may quickly become full-time work.

Taking care of a loved one is an admirable undertaking. Many adult children have to manage working, raising kids, taking care of their own health and maintaining a personal life while caring for an aging parent. Whether you provide minimal care, such as errand-running, or engage in hands-on activities, such as bathing, dressing and meal preparation, becoming a caregiver probably took you by surprise, and you are not alone. Over 40 percent of caregiving Americans say they were unprepared and felt they had no choice in providing care for a senior family member.

There are more than 34.2 million Americans who serve as family caregivers for someone age 50 and over. On average, family caregivers spend 24.4 hours per week providing care. The impact of the caregiving responsibilities on families is profound. Faced with these challenges, most family caregivers find that it is impossible to sustain a high level of care. As a result, their elderly loved ones either receive less care than they deserve or family caregivers cut out other activities in their lives. The stress of caregiving takes a toll on their physical and emotional well-being; 19 percent of family caregivers report a high level of physical strain and up to 70 percent report symptoms of depression. About 60 percent of family caregivers also work. The intensity of caregiving forces 61 percent of working family caregivers to make a workplace accommodation, including going in late, leaving early, taking time off, cutting back on working hours, taking a leave of absence, turning down a promotion, retiring early or losing job benefits.

One study found that working family caregivers are 25 percent more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure and 50 percent more likely to experience daily physical pain than their colleagues who do not have caregiving responsibilities. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance – National Center on Caregiving, elderly spousal caregivers (aged 66-96) who experience caregiving-related stress have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than noncaregivers of the same age.

Caregiving is challenging and comes with its own rewards, but ultimately will be more sustainable if you can find ways to build a community of support. Taking care of yourself involves recognizing your own needs and finding a way to make sure that they are also being met. Here are ways you can take care of yourself first.

• Recognize the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout. If you no longer want to be involved with family, friends or activities you once loved, it’s a good bet you’re feeling the extra stress of caregiving. If sleep patterns are interrupted or change over time, this puts a lot of stress on your body.

• Talk to someone. Find a trusted friend or family member who will understand what you are going through. Talking to someone else will help you feel so much better.

• Be realistic. As many of the diseases associated with aging progress, your loved one will get worse, not better, and you must recognize this. It’s never easy to see a loved one slipping away, and caregivers can make all the difference in how it is handled.

• Set aside time for yourself. Do something for you every day. Put aside one hour and read that book or check your emails, but do it every day, and do it just for you.

• Look for a trustworthy in-home personal care service agency. This is where you’ll get the temporary break you need. Trusted and reliable caregivers are just waiting to help you and your aging family member.

• Get help. Seek out caring support for the aging adults in your community from your temple, a therapist or counselor, and family members. These resources can help you work through your emotions. Don’t try to do all the work yourself. It’s not easy to ask for help, but friends and family members may be happy to pitch in. In fact, finding an employer-based home care agency may be an excellent way to give yourself a break. In-home care personal services will allow your loved one to age in place for as long as possible, minimizing cost and disruption in their life.

And if you see a family member or friend providing care for another person, take the opportunity to insist on pitching in to assist and offer to “share the care.”

Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions, LLC. Visit cypresshomecare.com.

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