Caregivers face challenges, find rewards taking care of loved ones

Karen Williams doesn’t need to read the statistics about a crisis in care-giving for older adults that is sweeping the nation.

She lives it every day.

Williams, a sales manager for IBM, sometimes feels like a circus juggler trying to balance her family, a high-stress job, conference calls and caring for her 87-year-old mother, who suffers from diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other health problems.

“I’m learning a lot about the health of the elderly, and I’m learning new things every day,” said Williams, who is thankful she can often work from her Stone Mountain home, which she and her husband expanded to make room for her mother when she came to live with them a few years ago. “Every day is a challenge.”

Williams is far from alone.

The nation is currently experiencing a caregiver crisis that is going to get worse, said Leisa Easom, executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.

The crisis will be further fueled by an older population that is growing and living longer with chronic illnesses, combined with shortages in some areas of health care.

Williams’ mother requires constant care. Williams says she’s lucky because her mother had long-term care insurance, which pays part of the tab for assistance. But some of the care benefits are ending soon, which will force more responsibility on Williams, her family and a sister who lives in another state. Taking care of her mother requires a tremendous amount of organization.

“I’m trying to cover all of my mother’s requirements, but no matter how well I try to anticipate and cover them, things pop up,” she said. For example, Williams said she’s been out of town for work and had to suddenly return home when an issue arose.

The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP estimated in a 2009 report that there were more than 65 million unpaid family caregivers to an adult or child.

And much of the responsibility falls on women. The average caregiver is female, in her mid- to late-40s, married and working outside the home, experts say. Female caregivers may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than male caregivers.

Caring for an elderly parent or sick relative is perhaps one of the most difficult and stressful times for an individual, said Clarice W. Dowdle, the chief operating officer of Atlanta-based Senior Caregiving Today and author of “Time for the Talk: The Ten Step Plan for Effective Senior Caregiving Today.”

When many people are placed in the role of caregiver, they have no idea about the emotional and financial commitment it involves.

Easom said the caregiver is the one often most overlooked. She said caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than noncaregivers and twice the rate of chronic illnesses.

The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, in partnership with Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, operates a caregiver support center. One caller said she made sure her relative went to the doctor all the time but realized she had not made an appointment with her own doctor in three years. Caregivers sometimes suffer from depression and other health issues.

“In their desperation, sometimes the caregiver becomes the casualty because they have cared for their loved one at the cost of themselves,” Easom said. “That’s not an option. Care-giving can be very rewarding, but it can also be exhausting, and we need to prevent that exhaustion though evidence-based support programs.”

Jazma Wise, 26, a mother of two young children, voluntarily took on the main role of helping care for her paternal grandmother, “Big Mama,” who is in a skilled nursing facility.

Her grandmother, who raised her, has cancer and has opted not to have further treatment after chemotherapy made her sick.

“You don’t think anybody can take care of them the way you do,” said Wise, who said she has been written up at work for being late. She said she gets help from her children’s father and other relatives, but she said the bulk of handling her grandmother’s business affairs and making sure she’s all right falls on her. At the same time she deals with the stress of watching a loved one’s health deteriorate.

“I don’t sleep a lot. I guess it hasn’t hit me yet,” Wise said. “I just do it because she’s my last grandparent and she’s my favorite.”

Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer knows the challenges well. In addition to a highly intense job and a growing family, he helps take care of his 72-year-old mother. (Until recently, Farmer also took care of his stepfather, who died at age 86 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.)

“It’s wrapped in emotions and it’s a great logistical challenge,” said Farmer, who shares care-giving responsibilities with his sister, Laurie, who lives in Canton.”You’re pulled. There’s a responsibility to your children, whom you love; your job; and your parents, whom you love.”

Do they need to be in a home or can they live on their own? How much help do you need? Is it the right help? Will Medicare cover this expense? Will insurance? Those are the types of questions Farmer found himself asking and sometimes spending hours seeking answers. He and his sister also had to handle their parents’ finances, schedule doctors appointments and act as a go-between if there were questions about care or medication.

It was worse as a caregiver when he lived in another city. “It was very, very challenging,” he said.

Care-giving is not for everybody, said Williams of Stone Mountain.

It requires patience, understanding, a willingness to do what’s needed and “a thick skin at times,” she said.

But every caregiver interviewed said while it was stressful and hard work, there was also the reward of being able to help their parents and spend more time with them.

Ellen Weaver Hartman, a public relations executive, said she found a silver lining in being able to care for her mother, who moved to Atlanta when she got older. Her mom died in 2010 at age 89.

“You get incredibly close to the person that you are taking care of,” she said. “While it is stressful, I also treasured every day with my mom and knew that if she had not had gotten sick, I would not have strengthened my bonds with her. She was my best friend and she knew it.”

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