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An Echo Press Editorial: Let's be thankful for family caregivers

By the Echo Press Editorial board

EP Echo Press Editorial
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On Thanksgiving week, we give thanks to an estimated 53 million Americans who have a very important responsibility. They are family caregivers.

Their role is more important than ever these days. The number of Minnesotans turning 65 in this decade – about 285,000 people – will be greater than the past four decades combined.

November is National Family Caregivers Month. Joseph Gaugler, with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, answered questions for the newsletter, “Talking with the U of M,” about who family caregivers are, what they do and common challenges they face.

Q: Who can be a family caregiver?

Prof. Gaugler: Caregivers of older persons are most often spouses/partners or adult daughters. According to a 2020 report, over 60% of caregivers are women. Close to 9 in 10 caregivers provide help to a relative, with half of caregivers providing help to a parent or parent-in-law.

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Q: What do family caregivers do?

Prof. Gaugler: On average, caregivers spend nearly 24 hours per week providing assistance. Six in 10 caregivers provide help for at least one activity of daily living (e.g., getting in and out of bed or chairs, getting dressed, bathing/showering). Family caregivers also perform tasks that healthcare professionals do. Fifty-eight percent of caregivers indicate they assist with wound care, tube feeding, or similar medical/nursing tasks.

Q: What are common challenges family caregivers face?

Prof. Gaugler: Nearly 1 in 4 caregivers report that caregiving has made their health worse. Nearly 4 in 10 caregivers indicate that their caregiving situation is highly stressful, and 1 in 5 caregivers feel alone in addition to feeling a high financial strain due to care provision. Over 60% of caregivers also indicate that caregiving has influenced their employment due to reductions in hours, leaves of absence, going in late, and leaving early. It is important to note that not all of the feelings associated with caregiving are negative; half of caregivers report that providing help gives them a sense of purpose.

Q: What should a family caregiver do if they’re feeling overwhelmed?

Prof. Gaugler: It is important for family caregivers to realize that they are not alone, and that there are a number of resources to help them navigate their caregiving journeys. The Family Caregiving Alliance has a number of important resources, including education, tip sheets, webinars and videos, online support groups, and the Family Care Navigator, which lists caregiving resources by state.

For more local resources, caregivers can contact their local Area Agency on Aging, which offers family caregiving support through a number of programs. The AARP also maintains a Caregiver Resource Center, which offers a wealth of information, guidance, and opportunities to connect with other caregivers and professionals.

Q: What are you doing to advance research on family caregivers?

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Prof. Gaugler: Our research team, the Families and Long Term Care Projects, is conducting a number of studies aimed at enhancing the support family caregivers receive, particularly family members of people with dementia. One study is evaluating a support program for family caregivers of cognitively impaired relatives living in nursing homes or similar residential settings. We also recently received supplemental funding to examine the impact of COVID-19 on our program as well as the lives of caregivers and residents. A second study is examining the integration of dementia family caregiver support and training in adult day services across the U.S. that is delivered by staff.

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