It isn’t something we think about or talk about in my family – it just IS. We are a family of caregivers. My grandmother cared for her mother. My mom and my two aunts in turn cared for my grandmother. It’s a generational thing. “Back in the day, older people remained in their homes until the end. If the brain no longer functioned, there was a body that was cared for. Not thrown out. It was a 24/7 thing,” my mom explained during a recent call. When I asked my mom about her experiences during a recent phone call, my questions seemed to trigger her. She went right back into her memories like it was yesterday.
My mom and my aunts endured a lot, caring for their mom through dementia until her death. Back in those days, there were minimal resources available to support them in times of need. It wasn’t easy, by any means – but it was just what we traditionally do as a family and as an extended family as well, on both my maternal and paternal sides. It is a deeply rooted aspect of Caribbean culture, but my family isn’t alone in this fact – loved ones of all cultures become caretakers for their relatives or friends in need. But what I’ve learned via the AARP, is that African-American family caregivers face unique challenges. Consider these facts:
As the overall population ages, more Americans take on the role of unpaid caregivers for aging relatives and friends. Almost 3 in 10 people who are caring for someone say their life has changed with caregiving, oftentimes for the negative. 1 in 5 says that she is generally unhappier and 1 in 3 says that she feels sad or depressed.
The majority of African-American family caregivers are much younger than the average general market counterparts (44.2 years old vs. 52.5 old) and are the primary caregivers, providing all or most of the care, without the assistance of paid help
Compared with the average population of family caregivers, African-Americans are more likely to spend more than 21 hours per week caregiving
Almost half of African-American caregivers report they experience physical strain as a result of the tasks they help with in their caregiving duties
Typically, one person is tapped as the official caregiver. Typically that person bears a heavy load with silence, strength and stoicism. I’m here to tell you that at any time of year (but especially during the holidays), that person needs extra support, concern and outreach.
Being a caregiver for an older relative or loved one comes with unforeseen physical effort and truly heavy emotional burdens that can be difficult to shoulder. The first thing to understand is that everyone isn’t able and being unable doesn’t make you a bad person.
“Not everyone can be a caregiver, and that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t love or care,” my dad explained. “It is a much more difficult, hands-on job than you may imagine. Consider all of the things a nurse has to deal with – now you are there to deal with these kinds of medical and personal issues without any of that training. Love alone will not get you through. And if you work or go to school, you are literally giving up your life. Surrendering all of your comforts. If you can financially afford it, get some professional help. Recognize the signs that you need that help,” my dad added. He speaks from experience and from seeing the experiences of others. In order to be most effective to the person you’re caring for as well as for yourself, you have to be honest with yourself and recognize your capabilities. Know when to ask for help and how to find the help you need.
Caregivers now have much better resources, especially online. Here’s a helpful one — AARP has created The Caregiving Community, and for caregivers learning the ropes, they’ve included The Care Guides. That site breaks down everything from being a first time caregiver, to knowing when you may need a caregiver yourself. It also recognizes that there isn’t just one kind of caregiver, something my dad also pointed out during our call. “Caregiving has so many facets and aspects. Your mom endured being a caregiver to her own parents when they were infirm. But throughout your life you can be a caregiver. It might be because of dementia, it might be disease, or mental illness. You can be a caregiver for someone elderly or someone young, it might be your own child. But it comes from love. Love will take you from the cradle to the grave. From the womb to the tomb.”
While you’re caring for someone, it is possible to lose sight of your own needs. It’s a vicious cycle, focusing on someone else’s care can make you forget your own until you reach a point of crisis. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are you getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation can rob us of our ability to cope. Take your need for sleep seriously, it’s what powers you through each day.
Can you make time to exercise? Making time for exercise can be tough when caregiving, but it can help you stay mobile, physically capable, and it boosts your endorphins. AARP suggests you “try working in a daily routine, like moving while waiting for your loved one during a doctor’s appointment: march, squat, stretch, jump etc.”
When you’re feeling tapped out, how do you regain your energy? There is of course prayer, there is exercise, there is yoga. And in addition to those, AARP recommends these as “quick tank-fillers you can fall back on: texting a friend, taking a walk, having coffee, or giving a hug.”
Do you meditate? Meditation can really help. Try a quick, easy technique: close your eyes and then count from 1 to 10 with each inhale and exhale. When you’re done, start over at 1 again. You can do this any time or place to help find your center.
Feeling tired? Drink more water! It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy with caregiving tasks, but even very mild dehydration can zap your energy.
Feel your feelings. My friend Ty Alexander (AKA Gorgeous in Grey) also blogged on this topic – click here to read her post on caregiving. Ty is also the author of Things I Wish I Knew Before My Mother Died (click to check it out) so she knows of what she speaks. Don’t hold all your emotions inside, especially when dealing with so much. It’s OK to cry. To vent. To be human.
The most important thing is to know that you aren’t alone and that you are appreciated. Being a caregiver takes heart and strength beyond what many of us can imagine. You don’t have to shoulder your burdens alone. There’s the AARP Caregiving Community, and you can visit the Caregiving Resource Center for care guides or call 1-877-333-5885 for additional guidance and support.
This post was sponsored by AARP, but the opinions are all my own. Hope this is helpful info for you and yours!