All too often, the task of caring for an elderly, disabled or terminally ill family member falls entirely—or nearly so—to one family member. Sometimes this happens by default, because one family member lives near the person in need or has a more flexible schedule, or simply has a closer relationship with the person he or she is caring for. In other situations, families plan for one family member to take on the day-to-day responsibilities while other relatives provide financial support to free up the caregiver.
However the arrangement arises, it’s important for other family members and members of the extended support network to be aware of the risks associated with one person shouldering all that responsibility, and of the caregiver’s needs.
Risks for Caregivers and Their Impact on the Family
It’s well documented that being the primary caregiver for an elderly, disabled, or mentally or physically ill loved one takes a toll. Studies show that more than 1/3 of caregivers suffer from ill health themselves, and that the caregiver’s own health is frequently a deciding factor in placing a loved one in a nursing home or other long-term care facility. But, the caregiver isn’t the only one affected by this stress and the high potential for burnout and negative health impact.
Some potential effects of inadequate caregiver support include:
- Caregiver burnout can impact both the mental and physical health of the caregiver and the quality of care he or she is able to provide. Scheduling regular time away from the caregiving environment allows the caregiver to refresh his or her energy and remain alert and committed to caretaking responsibilities.
- Having just one person serve as the elderly or disabled person’s sole source of support, companionship and advice can open the door to financial abuse or, conversely, to unjust allegations of undue influence in financial and estate planning matters.
- As the need for hands-on care increases or becomes more constant, a family member caregiver may be unable to provide the level of care required on a consistent basis, and may not independently recognize the gaps created.
- When the full burden of transporting an aging or ailing relative to doctor appointments, responding to emergencies and other caretaking falls on one person, it can jeopardize other areas of the caregiver’s life, including employment.
- Reliance on a single caregiver for all or the vast majority of a loved one’s care can create a crisis situation if that caregiver becomes ill or is otherwise unavailable to provide the usual support.
While caring or managing care for a loved one who is in ill health is never easy, the family can take steps before the need arises to ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible for all concerned. Life care planning plays a significant role in this preparation, by helping to ensure that the family has access to any necessary outside support, whether that means an occasional home health aide, more extensive in-home care, medical support, or residential care.
However, legal and financial planning is only one piece of the puzzle. It is also important that family members work together to ensure that the older person is able to maintain relationships with loved ones other than the primary caregiver, that there are systems in place to provide caregiver support, and that a back-up plan is established before a crisis occurs.
It’s never too late to plan, but the earlier you prepare, the more options will likely be available to you, and the better opportunity you will have to create a supportive environment for your older or disabled loved one and those who provide support.