The Challenges of Family Caregiving: Part Two

By David Greenberg

In the last issue of the Caregiver Chronicle, our cover story focused on the importance of caregivers making sure they take the time to socialize and interact with people outside of their caregiver circle.

This time, we are going to take that concept a step further. As important as social interaction is for the caregiver, it is just as important for the family member for whom they are caring, especially if that person is an older parent, which is often the case.

This is a challenge that has a long history for caregivers. It started long before the pandemic, which only served to make it far more challenging.

And now, as we hopefully return to a way of life, many of us have not seen for more than two years, the new challenge is changing behavior for both the caregiver and their senior family member.

For many families facing these circumstances, isolation became a way of life during the last few years. But that is simply not healthy long term for everyone involved, according to Flory Antiga-Stephens, LCSW, Case Manager at HCA FL Senior Healthcare Center at Melrose.

“Socialization not only impacts your mental health, it also has a great influence over your physical health,” she said. “People don’t always make the connection between the top part of their body and the bottom part. Thoughts can significantly impact your overall mood, body functions, energy, sleep, body aches, pains and create digestive problems.

“Older adults are at a far greater risk for social isolation as many have mobility limitations and can’t drive,” she added. “When you are feeling stressed and isolated, it may be totally in your head, but it creates problems for your body causing higher risks for health problems.”

When you are younger you are generally more active, but as we age, we become less active. When we isolate, that limited activity occurs even less frequently and impacts you physically in many ways. It can also impact your blood pressure, and that can lead to more serious problems.

“With COVID, it all got much worse,” said Antiga-Stephens. “You were told not to go out, not to get together with friends and wear a mask. That created a conflict for so many. It was far from a win-win situation.”

As the caregiver, what can you do?

“You’re stuck,” she said. “You are just as stressed as the older person sitting at home. Now, as we are learning more, adapting and finding a better balance and getting ahead of it a little bit, things can and must change.”

The reality for many older people is that life does change. They may retire or move away from family or friends. Things are not always under their own control, and they may have to rely on others. It’s important to understand and be mindful of their daily challenges, thoughts and mood changes.

One tool the physicians and staff at the HCA Senior Healthcare Center use for screening, diagnosing, monitoring and measuring the severity of depression is the PHQ-9 questionnaire.

“The PHQ-9 is a brief test that provides a window into how the patient is feeling currently,” said Antiga-Stephens.

“Included with the annual exam, it can also be given to patients should they report significant stress or problems coping during a routine or work-in visit. It gives the doctor a sense of the patient’s current state of mind and an opening for a conversation. Based on the score, they can make recommendations, prescribe certain medications and make appropriate referrals.”

There’s one other thing caregivers and older family members can be doing now to help keep isolation from becoming a physical health issue while continuing to take precautions, as we all make every effort to become more socially active.

Senior centers and religious institutions which virtually shut down two years ago, are reopening. It is vital that while you continue to protect yourself physically, you become as active as you possibly can. It may be just taking your older parent to the grocery store with you, taking a walk in your neighborhood if possible and encouraging social connections. Any activity is better than none at all.

“There will always be challenges as a caregiver for and with an older person” said Antiga-Stephens. “As we said, it became huge during the pandemic. But we must do everything we can to overcome these challenges by becoming more aware and thoughtful.”

Also in this issue:

In-person caregiver support groups

From Elder Options: Could Statins Prevent Dementia?

A message from VITAS Healthcare on protecting caregivers

The Alzheimer’s Association Brain Bus in Gainesville

Touching Hearts at Home Community Health Fair