Foreword: I originally published this article in July and thought that it needed another go round on the blog. If you help out a family member, read below and see if you qualify as a caregiver. (More than likely, you probably do!) I want you to know that there are resources available to help you!
Recently, a therapist friend of mine brought up the fact that caregivers do not realize they are caregivers. My mind was blown! She was totally right. It reminded me how I used to not see myself as a caregiver to my grandparents. On a professional level, I have worked with family members in nursing homes who did not see themselves as caregivers. Lots of people do not perceive themselves as caregivers!
It seems like when people think about caregiving they imagine a kind nurse helping a sick, frail patient with some sort of self care task, like getting dressed or taking medicine. Or people think that a caregiver is a parent raising a child. Both thoughts about caregivers are correct, but let me tell you, the definition of a caregiver expands way past physically helping a person with the intimate parts of everyday life.
I talk about caregivers all the time in my blog, videos, and with clients and their families. It is long overdue for me to break down what a caregiver actually does!
A caregiver is a family member, friend, or paid professional that helps a person with activities of daily living. I understand that is a broad definition, but let me explain. Activities of daily living refer not only to self care tasks like toileting, bathing, grooming, etc., but they also refer to taking care of the home, finances, transportation, community errands, using a telephone, and so on and so on.
If you just sit for a minute and actually think about all of the seemingly small things you do a day, than you will realize that some people need help with all of those things you take for granted. Let me tell you about my first hour of a normal day. I get out of bed, put on my glasses, make the bed, go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, let the dog out, make breakfast, eat breakfast, and walk the dog. For each one of those tasks, I could go into even more detail about what I do.
There are some people who need help with every single one of those things that I do in the first hour of the day! My first hour of the day consists of my personal needs and taking care of my dog. If someone helped me with any of those things, they would be my caregiver. Is your mind blown yet?
My personal experience as a caregiver started many years ago with my wonderful grandparents. My grandmother, Granny, would ask me to help out with tasks around the house like changing the light bulbs, taking down the attic fan cover, and carrying the laundry basket up from the basement for her. (By the way, all of those things are caregiving activities!) I did not see myself as a caregiver. I saw myself as helping Granny out! I actually cherished going to my grandparent’s house and reading my list of to do’s. In my mind, that’s what you do for your family: you help your family whenever they need something.
Over time, my grandparents asked for more help around the house and going out in the community. I loved our new weekly ritual of picking them up and driving to the grocery store. Granny would chit chat with the store employees at the front of the store and at checkout. We would take our time walking the aisles while Granny asked me to reach for the products she wanted. I would push the cart and Grandpa helped me load and unload the groceries into the car and house. All of us worked at a furious pace to put the groceries away, “Hurry! The ice cream will melt!” We ended our grocery run at the dining room table eating donuts and drinking coffee or cappuccino and catching up with each other over the past week. I had no idea that my role as a caregiver would continue to grow.
Eventually, my caregiving responsibilities included managing my grandparent’s medication and finances. I used to work as a pharmacy technician while in school, so it seemed a natural fit for me to make sure their medications were refilled and placed in their weekly medication organizer. Granny trusted me with balancing her checkbook every week and Grandpa knew I would pay the bills as soon as they came in the mail. I always made sure to do the bills and medication how they wanted to give them peace of mind.
The increase in caregiving tasks came with more time spent with my grandparents at their house. My mother and I split caregiving duties to even the load and allow us to attend to other parts of our lives, like work and school. Mom would take my grandparents to doctor’s appointments, the nail salon, the hair salon, and other errands. My grandparents were lucky enough to qualify for a personal care attendant through one of the county’s senior services programs who helped with laundry, cooking, and cleaning the house. We were fortunate to have a team of caregivers for Granny and Grandpa!
Towards the end of Granny’s life, she was able to do many of her self care tasks such as dressing, toileting, bathing, brushing teeth. Sometimes Mom helped Granny put her curlers in her hair in the evening before bed due to Granny’s arthritis in her shoulders. Granny called us when she felt sick and we would give her medicine and contact her doctor. When she passed suddenly in 2016, I felt my world shift. Of course, I missed my role as a granddaughter to Granny, but I also missed my role as a caregiver to her. I loved how Granny was my caregiver when I was a child, and I was able to be a caregiver to her in the last part of her life.
In a way, my role as a caregiver to Grandpa has greatly reduced as well. After Granny passed, Grandpa needed physical help with self care tasks in addition to taking care of the house. Grandpa now requires at least two people to help with sitting and standing during his activities of daily living 24 hours a day. Because of Grandpa’s needs for more help, he now lives in a long term care facility where the nursing staff provides the care he needs. Now, my role is back to being his granddaughter. We still continue our tradition of cappuccino and donuts every Sunday while we visit together.