Caregiving in crisis: Putting your heart into it

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Although we’re always grateful for our family caregivers, they deserve a resounding applause right now. November is National Family Caregivers Month, and this year they are caregiving in crisis. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put an extra strain on everyone, caregivers must shoulder that weight while providing support for individuals under extra stress.

If you are not a caregiver or receiving care, chances are that you know someone on either end or will likely have to make decisions about caregiving for a loved one at some point in the future. Luckily, Shaienne, family caregiver at Soundview Family Care Homes, and others are stepping up to do whatever is needed. It’s not easy to begin with, but after 19 years of being around family caregiving, Shaienne knows what really matters.

Shaienne with Soundview Family Care Homes puts her heart into it even when caregiving in crisis.

“Caregiving is definitely something that you have to put your heart into or it’s not going to work long-term,” said Shaienne. “You have to care to be a caregiver because you’re not just providing services for people – You are providing love and support that they may not have received elsewhere.”

Education can make all the difference

While caregivers provide the love and compassion, Vaya Health provides the caregivers with education and support. The geriatric team at Vaya includes registered nurses, licensed clinicians and qualified mental health professionals who offer free education as well as consultations if needed. They understand that the more people know about specific behavioral and mental health issues, the better individual care they can provide.

“Caregivers can get frustrated because they’re not educated about what’s happening and therefore, they can actually make the behaviors worse,” said Julie Dollar, geriatric team manager at Vaya Health. “We will go in and try to help deescalate if needed. Sometimes it’s just letting the caregiver know that what’s going on is normal. We assist them with the best way to help the individual so it’s very person-centered.”

There are many variables when it comes to caregiving. Those that need ongoing assistance with everyday tasks can be in a residential or institutional setting. It can be caring for children up to older adults who have chronic illnesses, and there are also mental or behavioral conditions that need to be considered. According to Mental Health America, one in five caregivers helped someone with a mental illness in 2019, and the number of caregivers needed to provide care is only going to increase. The CDC states that people 65-years-old and older are expected to double between now and 2030.

Shaienne is familiar with all of this. Her mother owns several family care homes so Shaienne has been surrounded by it since the age of five, which means she’s known some of the residents at her home since she was a little girl. She’s seen them decline as they’ve grown older and their mental health affects them differently than it did years ago.

“I’ve been greatly appreciating the Vaya Health courses on how the disabilities of mental health issues start to affect the older generation,” said Shaienne. “While I’ve known them since I was little, their mental health is starting to change, and I’m not recognizing it. It’s just good to have the resources to help me identify those changes. I honestly think I would have continued to provide the same care that I’ve always known to provide, and I’d probably get a little more frustrated when what once worked no longer works.”

Caring for others means caring for yourself

Soundview Family Care Homes houses both aging residents and a younger generation. So, on top of the regular issues and changes in behavior that she handles, there are the added stressors that come with COVID. Some residents who used to go out for work or visit family are now stuck at the house and sometimes don’t understand why. Shaienne says the majority of her residents are struggling during this time, and staff are doing everything they can to help residents cope. Something the Vaya geriatric team is seeing a lot of with both caregivers and the people they’re caring for is depression.

“There’s a lot of depression right now, especially in some of the folks who used to get outside day care,” said Julie. “Now the caregivers are not getting a break and the person receiving care is not getting a break. They get just as irritated with the caregiver as the caregiver does with them.”

Julie says it’s common to experience the same things even outside of caregiving. Families are now finding themselves spending much more time together and often unable to get away like they used to for school or activities. She suggests caregivers do some of the same general recommendations for everyone during this time – finding routines, getting outside if possible and, most importantly, finding time for yourself.

While Shaienne feels fortunate that their houses have plenty of property to take breathers and walk around outside, there are still older residents who are unable or do not want to go outside. Instead, Shaienne has increased activities indoors while practicing social distancing, from movies and crafts to just simply sitting on the porch and talking. But no matter what happens, she wants to remain positive for them.

“I need to be the face of reassurance because if I’m panicked and nervous, they’re going to feel that energy and they’re going to be panicked and nervous,” said Shaienne. “If it’s bad for me, it’s going to be really bad for them.”

To maintain that positivity, she follows Julie’s advice. Whenever she gets a chance for some downtime, she takes it. Whether it’s reading, playing mind games on her phone or just re-watching old episodes of shows that don’t require a lot of attention, Shaienne knows how important it is to give herself a break.

“Take the time to care for yourself because caregiving during this time has been a lot more difficult than anything I’ve ever managed,” said Shaienne. “While we are caregivers and we should give what we can to those around us, we should always remember to keep some for ourselves, too. If we burn out, who else is going to help them?”  

Make use of resources to make caregiving rewarding

Although there are limits to what family caregivers can do during COVID with respite care being limited, there are ways to cope. Receive encouragement from online support groups, and find support by visiting Vaya’s online event calendar where you can register for training and educational courses. There are also free, anonymous screenings for depression and other mental health issues at vayamindful.org. Vaya encourages caregivers to take classes and screenings to stay informed and healthy – making their work experience more rewarding. Because as Shaienne knows, even though caregiving is not easy, there are so many benefits.

“I really like being able to make the connections with the residents that nobody seems to connect with and bring them out of their shells so that they’re not so isolated,” says Shaienne. “Being able to just communicate and relate to them on a different level is what’s most rewarding.”

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