64 is not so old!

This article was published in The West End Times November 19, 2011.

Will you still need me,
will you still feed me,
when I’m sixty-four.”
The Beatles, “When I’m 64”

It’s hard to believe that when we listened to this song so many years ago, 64 years old was thought of as OLD. Times have changed since Lennon and McCartney sang those words in 1967. Healthcare changes now help people live well into their 70’s and 80’s. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but does 64 now look like 84? At whatever age our friends and loved ones become unable to do things for themselves, they need help. Who are the ones to step up to offer this help? The “informal caregivers” as they have been named over the past years as the numbers increase. I’m not crazy about the term but for the purposes of understanding the concept these are people who provide hours and hours of their time and dedication to helping others who are close to them.

The term refers to anyone who provides assistance to someone else who needs help performing the daily tasks essential to living a normal life. This includes persons providing care for: a husband who has suffered a stroke, a wife with Parkinson’s disease, a mother-in-law with cancer, a grandfather with Alzheimer’s disease, a loved one with traumatic brain injury, a friend with AIDS, a child with muscular dystrophy, and an elder who is very frail. These caregivers often provide emotional support as well as a wide range of services, from meal preparation to medication management, shopping, dressing, bathing and help with personal care.

There are more than 2 million “informal caregivers” in Canada. A recent conservative estimate of their economic contribution was $25 billion. Imagine where our healthcare system would be without these unsung heroes. We have to acknowledge this tremendous help and find ways to support those in this position. Despite health advances, the fact remains that caring for a spouse or friend or other family members in need, regardless of their age, can be exhausting.

This demanding and stressful new role may threaten the caregiver’s health. As a caregiver, you may begin to feel very isolated from friends and feel tremendous guilt even thinking about your own unmet needs. Too often when we are helping families cope with the new situation at home we find that the caregivers do not even think of their own needs. How do you know if caregiving is becoming too risky for you? How do you know when you need to get a break? How do you know when, if you don’t accept help, you will no longer be able to help your loved one?

The following are things to watch for and questions to ask yourself. Are you missing or delaying your own doctor appointments? Are you ignoring your own health problems or symptoms? Are you not eating a healthy diet for lack of time? Are you overusing tobacco and alcohol when you feel stressed? Are you giving up exercise habits for lack of time? Are you losing sleep? Losing connections with friends for lack of time to socialize? Bottling up feelings of anger and frustration and then being surprised by angry, even violent, outbursts directed at your spouse, other family members, and co-workers – even strangers? Feeling sad, down, depressed or hopeless? Do you have a loss of energy? Are you lacking interest in things that used to give you (and your spouse) pleasure? Are you feeling resentful toward your spouse, blaming your spouse for the situation? Do you feel that people ask more of you than they should? Do you feel like caregiving has affected family relationships in a negative way? Do you feel annoyed by other family members who don’t help out or who criticize your care?

If even a few of these symptoms sound like you, you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You need it and deserve it. Don’t wait until your world feels like it is crashing down. If you and your family think of a plan that includes help for you as a caregiver early in the process, you may be able to avoid a crisis and keep your loved one at home.