Some of the chores involved in caring for someone with a chronic illness or disability can be downright intimidating, especially if your previous nursing experience consisted mainly of tending to your kids' coughs, tummy aches and minor scrapes. Now you've got the schedule for a shelf full of medicines to keep up with, along with perhaps health monitors to operate, wounds to dress or the behavioral changes in a loved one with dementia to contend with.
If you feel you've been thrown into these duties without an instruction manual, you're not alone. An AARP Public Policy Institute/United Hospital Fund survey of family caregivers found that many received little or no professional assistance in learning how to handle such tasks as medication management, wound care and operating medical equipment at home.
- Forty-six percent of the caregivers in the study said they handled medical and nursing tasks.
- Of that number, 78 percent were managing medications, including some who were giving injections and administering intravenous fluids.
- Thirty-five percent of them were providing wound care, while 32 percent were using oxygen and blood pressure monitors, telehealth equipment and other meters and monitors.
Fortunately, a variety of organizations have stepped in to address the need for family caregiver training, offering online courses, in-person workshops and other types of instruction. Some home health care companies are providing this service to their customers. At the national franchise Home Instead Senior Care, the most popular courses focus on Alzheimer's and other types of dementia, says Molly Carpenter, the company's caregiver advocate. The training is free and available online and through some local franchisees that offer classes for groups of 10 or 12.
“We try to give all kinds of really practical tips that are going to make caring at home better and easier," Carpenter says.
For example, family caregivers learn how to deal with common Alzheimer's-related behaviors like repetition, such as asking the same question over and over. The training courses provide tips for responding in those situations, including using the right language and tone of voice.
A course in palliative care teaches things like how to care for dry skin and how to help someone experiencing difficulty swallowing to eat and drink, Carpenter says.
Home Sweet Home Care Inc., based in Smithfield, Virginia, offers free access to the online Family Caregiver Education Program developed by aQuire Training Solutions. You fill out a form on the agency's website and receive credentials for logging into the training site. Course titles include “Alzheimer's Memory Loss and Aging," “Body Systems and the Aging Process" and “Common Chronic Diseases."
A number of Area Agencies on Aging also offer free courses for family caregivers, and Easter Seals provides training for caregivers of veterans through a contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs, covering topics like home safety, personal care and coping with difficult behaviors.
In the AARP/United Hospital Fund study, a common worry among caregivers taking on nursing and medical tasks was, “What if I make a mistake?" Education and training—including knowing what to expect as an illness progresses—can go a long way toward helping caregivers feel more confident and less overwhelmed, Carpenter says.
“When someone knows what they're facing, that can alleviate some of the stress of it all," she says.
Have you taken a class in caregiving? Would you? Tell us in the comments.