Working With Family Caregivers

According to the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA), more than 65 million family caregivers in the United States care for an aging or chronically ill parent, partner or relative. These caregivers provide assistance with basic daily activities, like dressing, eating, bathing and household chores, as well as coordinating transportation, finances and medical care. Most family caregivers are also a source of emotional support. Some family caregivers provide care for one or both parents, while others care for family members who are critically or terminally ill, or who have special needs. About 29% of the population provide care for a disabled, chronically ill, or elder family member. Caregiver statistics show that 66% of caregivers are women and the average age is 49. Most caregivers work outside the home, and more than one-third live with children or grandchildren under age 18. On average, family caregivers spend about 20 hours per week providing care, and 13 percent of family caregivers provide more than 40 hours per week. Although caring for a loved one is rewarding, it can also be stressful. Most caregivers step into the role with very little preparation and minimal outside assistance. Caregivers who lack adequate support can suffer their own physical and mental problems. Providing care in addition to fulfilling other responsibilities can leave caregivers feeling isolated and exhausted. Over time, they often suffer from burnout and depression. To address these concerns, a growing number of family social workers are working directly with caregivers to help them manage their responsibilities without jeopardizing their own health and quality of life. Social workers contact family caregivers in health care settings (including hospitals, hospices and retirement homes) and through social service agencies, employee assistance programs and religious organizations. They provide information and resources when the time is right, always careful not to overwhelm those who have recently stepped into the role of caregiver following a medical crisis, such as a stroke, heart attack or cancer diagnosis. Social workers who work with family caregivers need to understand the factors that lead to burnout and must be able to recognize signs of depression. They must be prepared to help caregivers who ask for help as well as those who don't ask but actually appear to need it. One of the most pressing needs for caregivers is the opportunity to take some time off. Social workers can provide information about services and programs that provide reasonable respite care. They can also help organize family meetings to discuss team caregiving. To address caregiver isolation, social workers can provide information about support groups, or connect two caregivers who are in similar situations and can offer each other mutual support. Finances are a major concern for many family caregivers. They may worry about meeting household expenses and covering medical bills. At the same time, they may feel that their job is at risk because of the time and energy that being a caregiver requires. Caregivers can feel overwhelmed after assuming responsibility for their loved one's finances. Social workers can provide resources for financial management and planning, and can offer counseling for families dealing with financial hardship. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recognizes the importance of family caregivers by providing NASW standards for social work practice with family caregivers of older adults for social workers' practice with family caregivers. The NASW supports National Family Caregivers Month, which the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA) coordinates each November. The NFCA also provides educational materials about caregiving and supports the empowerment of caregivers. In addition to the NFCA and the NASW, social workers who work with family caregivers are supported by the National Alliance for Caregiving, a coalition of national organizations that focus on family caregiving issues. The Alliance conducts research, performs policy analysis, acts as an advocate for caregivers and provides reviews and ratings of caregiver resources.