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November is National Family Caregivers Month, an opportunity to focus on the challenges and needs of the more than 60 million Americans caring for family members across our country. As the population ages, so does the demand for caregivers. Consider this:  In 2013, over 15 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care for loved ones living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Those numbers are astounding, and they’re on the rise.

The natural tendency is to think of a caregiver as someone who cares for a loved one at home on a 24×7 basis; however, the role takes on many forms. Are you working full time and looking after a parent who still lives independently? Are you still raising children while simultaneously handling household tasks for your mother who is in the early stages of dementia? Do you oversee the care your spouse or parent is receiving in an assisted living or skilled nursing facility? These are all examples of the modern day caregiver.

If you or someone you know is a member of this ever growing demographic, I hope you’ll read on as I share five important tips to help caregivers achieve the balance and peace they dream of.

Accept help. Although most caregivers are stressed out, burned out, and worn out, they often have a difficult time asking for and accepting the help they desperately need. While doing some research in 2013, I came across the Lotsa Helping Hands website and it remains at the top of my list of recommendations. This powerful tool is free and provides caregivers with a central location to post tasks with which they could use help. Many times, family members and friends want to help, but just don’t know how – Lotsa Helping Hands solves that problem. Visit the website to find out more about how it works.

Consider some form of respite care. Simply put, you need a break. It doesn’t have to be a week in the Bahamas (although that would be nice), but scheduling an hour or two to go shopping, take a long walk, meet a friend for coffee, or just read a book can do wonders for the psyche in those moments where you feel ready to throw in the towel. To learn more about respite care, visit the ARCH National Respite Network or the Eldercare Locator website.

Find a support network. I can’t stress enough just how important this is. While friends will do their best to understand what you’re going through, nothing can replace connecting with another human being who has walked in your shoes. Contact your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter or Office on Aging for a list of available support groups. If schedules or lack of respite care prevent you from attending in person meetings, there are plenty of wonderful online options including the USAgainstAlzheimer’s, Memory People, and Alzheimer’s & Dementia Caregivers groups on Facebook, the Caregiver Action Network forum, and the Alzheimer’s Association’s ALZConnected online group.

Get organized! Check out technology designed to help caregivers stay organized; one of my favorites is a smartphone app called Carezone. If you aren’t tech-savvy, at a minimum, make sure important documents are in a safe place, preferably filed together in a folder or binder. Better yet, create a binder containing all pertinent information and documents from advance directives to a current medication list, insurance information, list of contacts, and medical history. There’s peace of mind in simply knowing that when you need something quickly, you know just where to find it.

Be gentle with yourself. We are our own worst critics, and caregivers are particularly susceptible to unhealthy self talk. Pay attention to your thoughts for a day and you’ll be surprised at how much time you spend beating yourself up. I recommend the book The Four Agreements, by don Miguel Ruiz, to all caregivers. The simple lessons found in these pages will increase your self awareness and help you manage guilt, stress, and expectations – both self imposed and those of others.

Please leave a comment if you have a tip to share with other caregivers. In the words of Charles Dickens, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” 

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