In the years after his wife, Glima, was diagnosed with dementia, Bill B. found it increasingly difficult to take care of her, their home and his own health alone. As her condition worsened, “We went from her helping me a little to me doing all of it,” Bill, 89, says. “It became a 24-hour-a-day job.” When Bill had to give up driving because macular degeneration took his eyesight, the couple’s challenges became even greater.
Like Bill, Norma S. knows the realities of being a fulltime caregiver. At 89, she is the sole caregiver for her 93-year-old husband, Carlton, whose dementia has made it so he can no longer care for himself. Norma has health concerns of her own, too: The pain in her feet makes standing in the kitchen to prepare dinner almost unbearable.
Bill and Norma are members of a growing legion of older adults devoting their later years to caring for a spouse or other older loved one. It’s been found that more than one-third of the nation’s more than 34 million unpaid caregivers are age 65 and older.*
We know that many of our members fall into this group, so we wanted to find out more about the challenges they face. We conducted a survey late last year, and asked senior caregivers across the country about their caregiving responsibilities.
‘He Knows That I Am There’
More than 86 percent of the 1,000 seniors in the SCAN survey said that taking care of their loved one is a rewarding experience. Norma agrees: “I have been physically and mentally able to take care of him, and that’s such a satisfying feeling,” she says. “He knows that I am there and I will be there.”
But being there for a loved one can mean less time and energy for caregivers to take care of themselves. “Most seniors are devoted to the person they are caring for,” says Eve Gelb, SCAN senior vice president. “But in many cases, we are seeing that caregivers end up sacrificing their own well-being when they should be able to live their best life, too.”
Asking for Help Can Be ‘Humbling’
Often, senior caregivers are reluctant to ask for help or to tell others about their challenges until the burden is too much to carry on their own. Bill explains why it was hard for him to ask for help: “All my life, I’ve always been independent. It was hard to come to terms with realizing I couldn’t care for my wife alone. It was very humbling.”
Connecting Caregivers to the Community
Eventually, the daily challenges of caring for themselves and their loved ones led Bill and Norma to realize they couldn’t do it alone—and both found they didn’t have to. Bill contacted SCAN, who helped him find a professional caregiver to help with some of Glima’s personal needs and a housekeeper who helps with household chores; his sons also help out when they can. For Norma, meal preparation is no longer a problem after a SCAN Peer Advocate suggested she call Meals on Wheels. She says that having nutritious meals delivered “has been a real lifesaver.”
Bill encourages other older caregivers not to be afraid to ask for help. “If you’ve been independent all your life it can be a hard thing to do,” he says, but he and Norma have both learned that even a little help can lighten the load.
“There’s beauty in the fact that, despite the challenges, people find joy in caregiving,” says Eve Gelb. “It’s important that we make sure they know about the support available so they and their loved ones can have the best possible quality of life.”
*National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.