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Between the ages of 3 and 10, my son was quite the handful. Anyone who has raised boys may be smiling and shaking their head in agreement. It got to the point where we gave him weekly rewards if we did not get a call from the school. My husband and I were young and pretty inexperienced, as most young parents are; however, we quickly learned that family life was not just about survival, it was about creating a healthy, well-balanced environment where we could all thrive. So what did we do? We called up our parents and arranged for a weekend off each month. Our son spent time away from home bonding with family, and we got well-needed respite so that we were able to accept him home with open arms and keep on pressing forward.  

It has been my experience, and I believe if one researched the topic of caregiving, statistics would paint a picture of families feeling responsible for providing care for their older loved ones. This picture would also show that many, many families donate this care without any thought of setting a financial price for all they provide.  Physical and emotional care, help, and attention are freely given, often to the point of exhaustion.

Unlike caring for a young child who you hope will grow to independence, those caring for the chronically ill may not have this future goal and may resort to simply creating an environment of survival. These caregivers develop a daily routine that consists of meeting their loved one’s basic needs; often neglecting their own.

I am very passionate about this topic. In my 20 years as a social worker, I have witnessed numerous caregivers burn out, some to the point of death. Whenever I have the opportunity to counsel caregivers, I strongly encourage them to take care of their loved ones, as well as themselves.

Living in Florida, my step-grandfather was hiding the fact that my grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. He already lost one wife and feared losing another. We saw the signs when we would visit my grandmother: cookies for breakfast she called “breakfast bars,” and the crackers in a bowl she said were “shredded wheat.” When she visited us in Pennsylvania she did not recognize extended family members who were a major part of her life. We tried to address the concerns, but Gramps just did not want to face reality until the dreaded day he loaded her on the plane after she beat him with a cane. He dropped her off at my parents’ home in tears admitting he could not care for her anymore. He moved back to Florida and died a few years later. Prior to his role as caregiver, he had been a very healthy man. There is no doubt this role shortened his life.

In my opinion, the most important way to prevent caregiver burn out is to get help. Like my realization that I could not care for my child on my own, caregivers cannot and should not take on this responsibility alone. Without the needed help, the caregiver and the one cared for will inevitably fall into survival mode. That’s not fair to anyone, not to the caregiver and certainly not to the one being cared for.

I’ve read chat posts from real caregivers admitting they were so burnt out that they even thought about suicide. This is extreme, but in reality, not getting help can be a slow suicide.

Most caregivers don’t know where to turn or are afraid of the costs involved in obtaining help. There are a number of government programs and services designed to support caregivers at home. At Steinbacher, Goodall & Yurchak, we provide a free consultation where we explain the resources available. A plan will be developed to pay for these services and preserve assets. We have a resource center filled with brochures on service providers, and our experienced staff is always happy to spend time with caregivers providing one-on-one guidance.

I love reflecting on the clients I have worked with over the years that recognized they were not an island. During a recent visit with my in-laws, we reminisced about the weekend visits our son had with them. They and my son had fond memories of their time together. I am very happy we reached out to them and other family members for help.

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