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Caring for the Caregivers--The Sandwich Generation

There are unpaid millions in the U.S. today caring not only for their children but also for their parents or older relatives. In fact, 44 million Americans are spending around 22 hours a week providing unpaid care to a frail loved one or one with an illness, disability or terminal diagnosis. Three fourths of these caregivers are women in their late 40s who still have grown children living at home. Typically these individuals assist with the activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, dressing, toileting or feeding their loved one, as well as taking care of the shopping, finances and transportation to and from medical appointments.

These responsibilities generally last at least three years, with demands increasing as the loved one nears death. Caregiving can be rewarding emotionally but when added to other family and personal responsibilities, it can impact the caregiver's employment and their own personal well-being. Depression and burnout among caregivers can lead to poor health habits, even including the unhealthy use of substances.

It's estimated that between 40-70 percent of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression and up to half meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. As the loved one's functional status declines, levels of caregiver depression and perceived stress tend to increase. And new stresses arise for those who try to locate appropriate end-of-life care for their loved ones, such as trying to hire private caregivers to assist with the burden of care or work to place the loved one into a nursing home or facility. Many caregivers worry about whether or not their loved ones will be as well cared for in these situations as they were able to provide.

One answer of course is to encourage over-stressed caregivers to seek out mental health counselors to use as sounding boards if for nothing else. Social support networks of friends or church members can also be wonderful resources to turn to in times of great need.

Finally, one other option that has often been a perfect solution is to retain the services of an in-home care agency. These agencies place trained and compassionate caregivers in the home to give caregivers a break (called respite care) or even take over the caregiving duties entirely which then frees up the caregivers to resume their regular pursuits. It can be the ideal situation for many families that become overwhelmed with caring for a loved one.

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