Family Caregivers: 10 Myths and Facts

Related topics: Caregivers, Care for the Caregiver, Family

November is National Family Caregivers Month

Middle aged woman hugs her senior mom

National Family Caregivers Month is a time to celebrate the many people who provide care for elderly, ill or disabled loved ones. It's also a great time to call attention to the need for resources to support family caregivers, the cornerstone of our nation's elder care system.

Many people have misperceptions about caregiving today, and experts say these erroneous beliefs can hamper the adoption of policies that support caregivers. Some myths also stand in the way of caregivers themselves seeking the assistance to improve the care they provide, while protecting their own physical and financial health.

Let's dispel ten of these common beliefs:

Myth #1: I'll probably never be a family caregiver.

Fact: According to the Caregiver Action Network, sponsor of National Family Caregivers Month, almost 40 percent of adults in the United States are caring for a loved one who is living with illness, physical limitations or dementia. You might not realize how many caregivers you know! Anyone who has family or friends is a potential caregiver. There's a famous quote by former first lady Rosalynn Carter: "There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers; those who will be caregivers; those who will need caregivers."

Myth #2: I won't ever need care.

Fact: Americans are living longer than ever—but they aren't necessarily healthier than ever. The rates of inactivity, obesity and diabetes are actually rising, meaning that the longer we live, the more likely it is that we will need someone to step in and help us with personal care, transportation, medication management, legal and financial matters and more. A sensible motto might be: prepare to need care!

Myth #3: Most caregivers are middle-aged women.

Fact: Traditionally, that was true. But a recent study from the National Alliance for Caregiving found that caregivers are a more diverse group than many people realize. Today, 40 percent of caregivers are men, and many caregivers are of the millennial generation, between the ages of 18 and 34. Even children are providing care for loved ones. And not all caregivers are family members; these days, friends are increasingly likely to step in.

Myth #4: Caregiving consists only of routine tasks.

Fact: What do caregivers do for their loved ones? Many people believe they mostly provide help around the house, maybe drive their loved one to church or the grocery store. But caregivers do so much more than that! They help manage their loved one's finances, medical care and medications. They help their loved one bathe, dress, and get to the toilet. They provide round-the-clock supervision for loved ones who are living with Alzheimer's or a related condition. And according to the AARP, almost half of family caregivers perform complex hands-on medical tasks such as wound care, administering injections and operating medical equipment. In the words of AARP's Susan Reinhard, "We ask caregivers to do things that would make even nursing students tremble."

Myth #5: Caregiving isn't costly.

Fact: Though many people believe that Social Security, Medicare and other government programs cover the basic living and healthcare costs of seniors and people with disabilities, the fact is that many family members spend thousands of dollars each year to keep senior loved ones safe and well cared for. Caregivers provide unpaid care that saves our nation billions of dollars each year, yet their own financial well-being doesn't fare as well. Beyond helping pay for their loved one's needs, many must quit their own jobs or cut back on hours. They even put their own retirement security in jeopardy.

Myth #6: Caregivers don't need help.

Fact: By now, it would seem obvious that this one is a myth! And yet, the needs of caregivers are all but invisible to many people. Caregiver support programs are chronically underfunded. In individual families, it often happens that one sibling might provide most of the care for an elderly parent. Even caregivers themselves often think they need to go it alone, and are unaware of resources that can help. Most communities have agencies dedicated to supporting and assisting family caregivers. Call your local Area Agency on Aging to learn about senior transportation options, respite care, home care, meal programs, senior care technologies, adult day centers, senior centers and other support services in your area.

Myth #7: If I'm a caregiver, I shouldn't talk about my feelings.

Fact: Most of us know that bottling up negative emotions is bad for our health—yet it's very hard to express, for example, that we feel resentful about having to give our elderly mom a bath. Why, she used to bathe us when we were young—how terrible to feel resentment or discomfort now that it's Mom's turn, right? And yet, it's important to know that caregiving brings with it a spectrum of emotions. Caregivers might feel worry, guilt, anger, grief, confusion … all understandable, given their workload and the changes in their loved one's life and their own. Being able to talk to someone—a trusted friend, a counselor, a support group—helps relieve stress and avoid "caregiver burnout." There's an old saying: Caring for the caregiver is an important part of caring for your loved one.

Myth #8: Caregiving ends when a loved one moves to a care facility.

Fact: While 90 percent of Americans say that if they were to need care, they would prefer to receive it in their own homes—"aging in place," it's called—in reality, a skilled nursing facility or other senior living community often is the best living situation when a person's care needs are complex. But this doesn't mean the end of family involvement—far from it! Many family members serve as a vital part of their loved one's care team, helping their loved one select a nursing home, move in, and adjust to their new life. Family may participate in their loved one's care plan and care conferences. They help staff and other residents get to know their loved one. If their loved one is no longer able to make decisions, family caregivers may serve as healthcare representatives. And of course, most nursing home residents eagerly look forward to visits. Many family members volunteer at nursing homes, even if their loved one has passed away.

Myth #9: All caregivers take good care of their loved one.

Fact: A celebration month for caregivers may seem like a bad time to shed light on this topic, but it's important to know that unfortunately, a small minority of caregivers may be negligent, abusive or exploit their loved one financially. If you think a senior is being abused, call your state's Elder Abuse Hotline. And if you are a caregiver who worries that you are not providing adequate care, or if you are struggling with negative emotions and stress that might make it hard to provide good care, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. Help is available for both you and your loved one.

Myth #10: Caregiving is mostly just hard work.

Fact: Caregiving can offer rich emotional rewards, and increases chemicals in the brain that make us feel good. Caring for an elderly parent, spouse or other loved one offers the satisfaction of knowing you are returning the support they once provided you. Providing care can bring the caregiver and care receiver closer together, providing a context for meaningful connection, even as a person reaches the end of their life. Caregiving siblings, too, often form a close, lasting bond as they join together to care for their parents. Accessing support services to lessen the stress of caregiving is the key to a more meaningful caregiving experience.

Find more information and resources on the websites of the Caregiver Network Action (formerly National Family Caregivers Association), the National Alliance for Caregiving, the Family Caregiver Alliance and the U.S. Administration for Community Living.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2015 IlluminAge

One task that proves quite challenging for caregivers is helping their loved one handle medical bills, including their Medicare coverage. There are so many choices! Read on to find some advice from the National Council on Aging about why you shouldn’t necessarily stick to the status quo during this year’s Medicare Open Enrollment period.

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