Caregiver nation: New tools to manage a family members health as well as your own

Free videos, podcasts, and guides offer training and sometimes solutions.

More than 40 million people in our country are caregivers for family members. The job often comes without warning or training and leaves little time for self-care. That puts caregivers at risk for a host of physical, mental, and emotional problems. "Stress is one of the biggest problems. But I also see caregivers who are struggling with declining health because they just don't have the time to take care of themselves, exercise, or go to the doctor," says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief of gerontology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Fortunately, there are all kinds of free educational opportunities designed to help family caregivers jump into their roles and better manage their own health.

Classroom learning and beyond

Family caregiver education is available in classes or workshops you attend in person. Classes are typically offered by a hospital, senior center, retirement home, or nonprofit agency.

The information you learn from the class leaders, as well as from other caregivers facing the same challenges as you, can be very helpful, especially when it comes to finding ways to cope with stress.

"Some caregivers say they only way they can deal with the stress is by attending support groups. They share tips, advice, frustrations, and camaraderie," Dr. Salamon says.

Other ways to train

Because caregiving is a round-the-clock job with little time to get away, many people seek caregiver education on the Internet. It holds a wealth of information that you can access at your own convenience, such as articles, videos, podcasts (audio recordings), books, and how-to guides — such as the Harvard Special Health Report Caregiver's Handbook (www.health.harvard.edu/CG).

The nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org), part of the National Center on Caregiving, is a rich source of free caregiver video education.

"We bring in experts on all kinds of topics and record them so you can do self-study online, at your own pace," says Amanda Hartrey, a family consultant with the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Caregiver training resources

Some groups specialize in providing caregiver tips and training. Consider these sources of free instruction.

Topics to help with caregiving

There are as many class topics as you can imagine, covering all of the important basics of caregiving. For example:

  • managing medications
  • talking to doctors
  • helping with personal care and toileting
  • transferring someone from a bed to a chair
  • preventing bedsores
  • ensuring nutrition for someone with special needs
  • caring for someone with a specific disease (such as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, or heart disease)
  • dealing with an emergency.

You can also find training that addresses the more nuanced challenges of caregiving. One important subject is how to communicate with a person who has dementia.

"Caregivers can learn how to manage the anxiety and panic that is often expressed by an individual who no longer comprehends language and is searching for a way to express discomfort, fear, or a wish," says Barbara Moscowitz, a geriatric social worker at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "We also address how to keep a loved one with dementia safe. We talk about safety in and outside of the home, driving, wandering, and strategies to minimize the dangers," Moscowitz says.

Topics to help you, the caregiver

You'll also find a wide array of topics to help you cope as a caregiver. "We have a six-week course on self-care. We teach people to take breaks, have a support network, maintain friends, and find a hobby. Maybe it just means taking 10 minutes to do some breathing exercises, take a walk, or make a doctor appointment for yourself," Hartrey says.

"We've also done a 'controlling frustration' class. Maybe you're not taking care of yourself, and you're irritable. Then you're short with the person you're caring for, and you feel guilty about it. We give people tools to manage that."

Other types of classes that can help you as a caregiver include courses on meditation, coping with decision fatigue, or self-care for the family.

"Even if you're just learning a little at a time, caregiver training will pay off," Salamon says. "You'll have a better chance at maintaining your own health and you'll be a better caregiver."

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