Drained and strained — those are the two words Karen Frost uses to describe herself, and it’s easy to understand why. The 43-year-old wife and mother of two works two part-time jobs and helps care for her 82-year-old mother, who lives 25 minutes away.
Her mother has a host of health problems, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, dementia and macular degeneration.
“She doesn’t really think that she needs any help, that she’s fine home by herself, and she wants to be home by herself until the end of her life,” explained Frost, who lives with her family in Poestenkill and has been tag-teaming with her brother to ensure her mother stays safe.
Although she’s happy she can be there to help, the additional worry and responsibility has taken its toll.
“I’ve had to tell myself I’ve got to watch myself because if I’m not taking care of me, then not only am I not able to help my mom, but I’m not able to be a good mom and a good wife and do everything that I need to do over here,” she said.
An increasing number of women are adding caregiving to the long list of responsibilities they juggle, and many are becoming overwhelmed in the process.
Andrea Fettinger, director of the Fulton County Office for the Aging, said calls from caregivers seeking support have been on the increase. Most often, she sees the oldest daughter in a family being called on to assist ailing parents.
“She also has children, she also has a job, and she also has other responsibilities in her own residence. So that creates a ton of problems for an individual like that in terms of how to prioritize what they do,” she said.
According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, 66 percent of caregivers are female, up from 61 percent in 2004. The average caregiver is 48 years old and has been serving in that role for an average of 4.6 years.
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Catholic Charities Caregivers Support Services, which serves the 14 counties of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, has seen an increase in the number of younger female caregivers asking for assistance.
Elder care program supervisor and social worker Mary Moller said the stress level is very high for those women.
“They’re spread very thin and what we find most often, just based on observation, is that the caregivers, they let themselves go. They’re so busy taking care of everyone else they don’t always take care of themselves. They’re taking care of their parents, and if they’re married, their spouse’s parents, and then their children and their jobs and if there’s any endeavors they want to pursue, volunteer work or faith communities, that’s a lot,” she said.
For the past three years, Anna, 44, of Greene County, has taken a major role in caring for her 85-year-old mother-in-law, who has dementia and lives three hours away in New Jersey.
Although her mother-in-law has been placed in a nursing home, Anna, who is her health proxy, coordinates her care, manages her material needs, keeps up with her Medicaid application, helps with the finances and works to ensure she cooperates with the nursing home staff.
“Her facility will call me a lot. In fact, the facility has a designated ring on my cellphone so that I can decide if I can handle it, because some days are rougher than others emotionally,” Anna said.
Anna juggles her caregiving responsibilities with a full-time and a part-time job. The added role of caregiver resulted in a lot of time away from work and the worry that she might get fired. It also put a strain on her relationship with her husband.
“Taking care of myself really went downhill. I was getting sick a lot, I was getting a lot of migraines and I was just so tense and stressed out all the time. I was dreading the phone ringing,” she said.
The worries have eased a bit since Anna’s mother-in-law was placed in a home that provides her with excellent care. And Anna combats the remaining stress by carving out time for herself. She makes it a point to exercise regularly, go on date nights with her husband and visit with friends.
Planning ahead before a crisis occurs is another way caregivers can ensure that stress doesn’t overtake their lives, said Fettinger.
“What happens most of the time is that when a crisis happens, the caregiver is making decisions as an emotional wreck,” she said. She suggested sitting down with family members and talking over their wishes before they are in need of medical care.
Once a woman takes on a caregiving role, she needs to know that sometimes it’s OK to say no when asked for help, Fettinger said. “Setting limits on certain things is really important for anybody’s mental health. … Taking care of yourself first only makes you a better person in whatever you’re doing.”
Moller agreed, noting that caregivers need to make sure they keep their own doctors’ appointments, manage their own chronic health conditions and try not to turn to unhealthy habits to cope with stress.
Organizations, including the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society and Catholic Charities Caregivers Support Services, sponsor support groups to help caregivers cope.
Catholic Charities Caregivers Support Services also provides consumer-directed respite care.
“This is where the family can privately hire someone, a neighbor, another relative, to care for their loved one. … They have to meet approval and then we reimburse them for approximately $300 per year,” Moller explained.
The program, which is funded by the New York State Office for the Aging, is open to anyone in the 14 counties Catholic Charities Caregiver Support Services serves. The person in need of care must be at least 60 years old, and the caregiver who receives the funds cannot live in the same house as the person he or she is caring for.
“Sometimes it’s just help with linens and cooking. Someone has a chronic health condition and they can’t put fresh sheets on their bed or do laundry. They can hire a neighbor,” Moller said.
For more information about the program, call 449-2001.