By Colleen Harvot, Director of In-Home Care 

Family caregivers to seniors are people who step up and help their loved ones life safer, happier, and healthier lives. Their roles vary from accompanying aging parents to their doctors’ appointments, visiting them regularly for socializing and wellness checks, daily phone calls, all the way to around-the-clock physical caregiving, including dressing, feeding, toileting, and socialization. Those of us who are parents can remember the sense of responsibility we had when our children were young, then away at college, and now out on their own. The situations change, but thoughts and anxieties still linger in our hearts and minds every day. This is aptly called the mental load or emotional load that a caregiver does to keep family members safe, happy, and validated.

Caregiving can be very rewarding because we have chosen to live our values by caring for a person who is vulnerable and in need of an advocate. At the same time, there are many aspects of caregiving that can be exhausting. It takes hours of time each week, almost always unpaid, and worries about the future do not miraculously evaporate when our heads hit the pillow. We also ruminate on the past and remember days when we were all younger and more energetic. We tell ourselves to be grateful for what we have while grieving happier or easier times of the past. If we remain open to them, we can discover genuine joy in moments of humor, a compliment, or a “thank you.” Consider these ideas to help acknowledge the caregivers in your life:

  1. See them. Caregivers to seniors are some of the most invisible, yet completely indispensable, people in our families and communities. Do you know a young mother who keeps an eye on her elderly next-door neighbor, and perhaps brings over an occasional hot meal or shovels the walk? She’s a caregiver – despite her daytime job and family’s schedules and demands. Has your mom taken on more responsibilities for your dad now that she has to remind him to take his pills? Perhaps she does a lot more of the driving, too, and feels a little sad about losing her gentleman chauffeur. She is a caregiver. If your brother has a more flexible schedule and goes to doctors’ appointments with your parents, he is a caregiver (and a notetaker and follow-up appointment-maker). There is a mental load associated with each of these jobs. A caregiver is always asking “What if?” or “What next?” Many caregivers will say it’s not the work that’s dispiriting, it’s feeling unseen. Think about the caregivers in your life. Take a few minutes to write an e-mail, send a text, or put a card in the mail that says, “I see what you are doing. You are not invisible to me. I am grateful for you.”
  2. Be patient. Allow planning time. This is especially true for full-time caregivers to aging parents or spouses. Caregivers who attend to the daily needs of dressing, toileting, feeding, and supervision (especially in the case of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or mobility concerns) cannot respond to a lunchtime invitation proffered at 10 a.m. the same day. They first need to arrange for coverage while they are gone. Caregivers’ friends may call two or three times with an invitation, but then they get frustrated when the caregiver can never accept. If they stop calling, isolation seeps in and threatens the well-being of both the caregiver and care receiver. Commit to inviting your caregiving friends whenever your group has an outing. Try to afford them ample time to make plans. Do not give up on caregiving friends when they most need your support.
  3. Make arrangements for respite care, even if your family doesn’t choose to use it. Respite care is when a professional caregiver comes into a person’s home while their primary caregiver is away for a relatively short period of time, anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. Respite care requires an initial evaluation of the care receiver’s needs, including a visit from a nurse to record essential health information. A thoughtful gift for a caregiver is to set up this initial no-charge visit in advance. If a caregiver wants to schedule a getaway, or even convalesce from his or her own illness or surgery, the plans are in place to have helpers at the ready. It’s a great stress relief for a caregiver who feels constantly “on the job.”

During the holiday season, let’s all make a special effort to validate the caregivers in our lives. The most important gifts don’t cost a dime, but they are golden.