GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While the calendar typically draws our attention to special groups of people who are sick and need help or support, November shifts the lens.
Following October — which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, among many others — November is National Family Caregivers Month.
In his proclamation last year, President Joe Biden sought to bring attention to people caring for aging parents or other loved ones fighting a serious illness or living with a disability.
“Family caregivers are the backbone of our nation’s long-term care system, doing essential work with devotion, often at great emotional and financial cost. We owe them,” Biden stated. “It is time to bring their service out of the shadows and celebrate and support them in living their own happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.”
Andrea Westendorp of the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan says it is important to encourage people to take the time to advocate for caregivers.
“People at the state level and the federal level are constantly putting bills forth to either raise the wages for professional caregivers or develop more community supports for informal family caregivers. Right now can be a great time to highlight some of those initiatives,” Westendorp told News 8.
For the Administration for Community Living, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that includes championing the RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage) Family Caregivers Act. The ACL also touted an executive order Biden signed in April approving more than 50 directives for federal agencies to widen access to affordable care.
“Nearly every other advanced country makes greater public investments in care than the United States,” the executive order read in part. “Investing in care is an investment in the future of America’s families, workforce and economy.”
Jean Holthaus, the regional director of outpatient and recovery services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, says it is important to recognize the unique stress placed on caregivers.
“I think anytime you are responsible for the care of another who may not be able to take care of themselves, we take that like it is a burden we carry, and you don’t get to lay it down,” Holthaus told News 8. “(There may be) some things that they can do for themselves, but you are still carrying a piece of someone else’s life with you, day in and day out.”
It’s not necessarily the physical labor of providing care, but the emotional and mental stress that weighs more on caregivers.
“Oftentimes, these are people who we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them,” Holthaus explained. “Sometimes, it is someone who used to care for us even, so the roles are shifting and changing, and that makes it really stressful and difficult.”
She continued: “The physical things, we can see them. ‘I need to go pick this up from the pharmacy or do that.’ That’s a scheduling thing. … But (there’s also) the emotions of watching someone in pain or watching someone’s health decline or watching someone not be able to do what they could do before.”
Holthaus wants to use the platform provided by National Family Caregivers Month to encourage caregivers to look for support and make a point to take care of themselves, as well.
“If you are flying on an airplane, they tell you that if the oxygen masks fall, put your mask on before you put the mask on the child you are flying with. It is similar in caregiving. You have got to take care of you,” she said. “If you are not doing those things, if you are not taking time to exercise, to eat healthy, to spend time with your own family and friends, to get away from that caregiving role, you are not going to have what it takes in the long run.”
Holthaus and Westendorp say therapy can be a way to help cope with the added stress of being a caregiver and recommend finding a local support group of fellow caregivers who can share in your story and help you through the process.
“The Area Agency on Aging has a virtual caregiver support group that occurs every Tuesday morning. That’s available to everyone in our region free of charge,” Westendorp said. “I know there are several counselors in the area that provide support to aging individuals and those who love and care for them. That is a significant time of change in a person’s life, especially as one person that is taking on the caregiving role and the other is exiting the caregiving role.”
You can learn more about that virtual support group as well as other education courses offered for caregivers at the Area Agency on Aging’s website.