ATLANTA — Karen Williams doesn't need to read the statistics about a crisis in care-giving for older adults that is sweeping the nation. • She lives it every day. • Williams, a sales manager for IBM, sometimes feels like a circus juggler trying to balance her family, a high-stress job, conference calls and caring for her 87-year-old mother, who suffers from diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other health problems.
I'm learning a lot about the health of the elderly, and I'm learning new things every day, said Williams, who is thankful she can often work from her Stone Mountain, Ga., home, which she and her husband expanded to make room when her mother came to live with them a few years ago. Every day is a challenge.
Williams is far from alone.
The nation is experiencing a caregiver crisis that is going to get worse, said Leisa Easom, executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.
The crisis will be further fueled by an older population that is growing and living longer with chronic illnesses, combined with shortages in some areas of health care.
Williams' mother requires constant care. Williams says she's lucky because her mother had long-term care insurance, which pays part of the tab for assistance. But some of the care benefits are ending soon, which will force more responsibility on Williams, her family and a sister who lives in another state. Taking care of her mother requires a tremendous amount of organization.
I'm trying to cover all of my mother's requirements, but no matter how well I try to anticipate and cover them, things pop up, she said. For example, Williams said she has been out of town for work and had to suddenly return home when an issue arose.
The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP estimated in a 2009 report that there were more than 65 million unpaid family caregivers to an adult or child.
And much of the responsibility falls on women. The average caregiver is female, in her mid- to late-40s, married and working outside the home, experts say. Female caregivers may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than male caregivers.
Caring for an elderly parent or sick relative is perhaps one of the most difficult and stressful times for an individual, said Clarice W. Dowdle, the chief operating officer of Atlanta-based Senior Caregiving Today and author of Time for the Talk: The Ten Step Plan for Effective Senior Caregiving Today.
When many people are placed in the role of caregiver, they have no idea about the emotional and financial commitment it involves.
Easom said the caregiver is the one often most overlooked. She said caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than noncaregivers and twice the rate of chronic illnesses.
The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, in partnership with Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, operates a caregiver support center. One caller said she made sure her relative went to the doctor all the time but realized she had not made an appointment with her own doctor in three years.
Caregivers sometimes suffer from depression and other health issues.
In their desperation, sometimes the caregiver becomes the casualty because they have cared for their loved one at the cost of themselves, Easom said. That's not an option. Care giving can be very rewarding, but it can also be exhausting, and we need to prevent that exhaustion though evidence-based support programs.
Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer knows the challenges well. In addition to a highly intense job and a growing family, he helps take care of his 72-year-old mother. (Until recently, Farmer also took care of his stepfather, who died at age 86 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.)
It's wrapped in emotions and it's a great logistical challenge, said Farmer, who shares care-giving responsibilities with his sister, Laurie, who lives in Canton, Ga.
You're pulled. There's a responsibility to your children, whom you love; your job; and your parents, whom you love.
Do they need to be in a home or can they live on their own? How much help do you need? Is it the right help? Will Medicare cover this expense? Will insurance?
Those are the types of questions Farmer found himself asking and sometimes spending hours seeking answers. He and his sister also had to handle their parents' finances, schedule doctors' appointments and act as a go-between if there were questions about care or medication.
It was worse as a caregiver when he lived in another city. It was very, very challenging, he said.
Caregiving is not for everybody, said Williams of Stone Mountain, Ga.
It requires patience, understanding, a willingness to do what's needed and a thick skin at times, she said.
But every caregiver interviewed said while it was stressful and hard work, there was also the reward of being able to help their parents and spend more time with them.
Ellen Weaver Hartman, a public relations executive, said she found a silver lining in being able to care for her mother, who moved to Atlanta when she got older. Her mom died in 2010 at age 89.
You get incredibly close to the person that you are taking care of, she said. While it is stressful, I also treasured every day with my mom and knew that if she had not had gotten sick, I would not have strengthened my bonds with her. She was my best friend and she knew it.
• Have the talk early. Don't wait until your parents or spouse are older or ill to know their wishes about care.
• If a qualified, reliable friend or relatives offer to help in some way, don't be too proud to accept. Sometimes an hour break can be a great stress reliever.
• Know where all important financial and personal documents are kept and make sure they're current.
• Divide responsibility among siblings.
• Understand it's emotionally taxing. Therefore, try to make logical decisions. Reach out to your company's human resources department, friends and others to help you navigate insurance, Medicare, veterans benefits and leave policies.
• Be compassionate and patient.
• Keep good records. It is a huge task juggling doctors, insurance, medications and agency help.
• Do not sign contracts with a home care agency without numerous discussions about what you're signing and your financial obligations. Check with consumer agencies, friends and family, and always ask for references.
• Review the medical care and medications your family member receives so you can make the best possible medical decisions on his or her behalf.
• Create an ongoing maintenance plan, including hygiene, exercise, socialization and nutrition.
Source: Caregivers and sources interviewed for this article, Time for the Talk: The Ten Step Plan for Effective Senior Caregiving Today, staff