When an elder is hospitalized, the primary objective of the medical staff is to tend to that person's immediate medical needs, hopefully making them well enough to return home. Each member of an aging adult's healthcare team is integral to the overall success of this mission.

However, there is one type of professional care provider that stands perfectly poised to provide much-needed information and support to both family caregivers and their elderly loved ones: the nurse.

Why nurses are so important

Nursing personnel perform a range of tasks, from monitoring vital signs and managing medications, to coordinating care and executing a treatment plan.

A good portion of the hands-on care that an elder receives in a hospital will likely be provided by a nurse, or nurse practitioner.

All of this one-on-one time spent with patients and their family members means that nurses quickly become well-versed in the nuances of their charges' care. This gives them the ability to not only act as a liaison between an elder, their caregiver and their doctor, but also to serve as a knowledgeable touchstone of support and information.

Nurses' guidance for family caregivers

We asked a team of veteran nurses from Hospice of the Ozarks and Carlow University to tell us what they wish all family caregivers knew.

They responded with a variety of suggestions, most of which centered on how to approach caregiving with patience and understanding—not only for your loved one, but yourself as well.

Ultimately, their guidance boiled down to six key insights:

  1. Aging adults are not children: It can sometimes be challenging not to view an elderly loved one in a childish light. This is especially true for those who suffer from a disease, such as Alzheimer's, that can cause them to act out in infantile ways. But, as a caregiver, you should always, "Try to remember that you loved one has had a full life and deserves respect," says Carri Butcher, R.N., who works for Hospice of the Ozarks and has more than two decades of nursing experience. "Be patient, make sure they are safe—but allow them as much independence as possible.
  2. Look out for depression : Depression is a common affliction among the elderly. But Butcher cautions caregivers not to view this mental ailment as a "normal" side effect of aging. "Depression in the elderly can, and should, be treated," she says. Here are a few warning signs of depression to look for in elders.
  3. Recognize what your loved one has lost: "The things that keep us going as adults are often lost as we age," according to Butcher, who says that the most profound loss experienced by elders is the loss of independence. This loss can be so upsetting, that it may cause your loved one to lash out and refuse your help. Butcher says it's vital for family members not to take these outbursts to heart. "Caregivers frequently don't understand and don't know how to deal with these behaviors," she says. "But it's important to try not to view them as personal attacks."
  4. It's important to keep moving: Your loved one may be resistant to physical activity due to stiff joints, sore muscles, or other mobility issues, but it's vital that they get their blood pumping in some way on a consistent basis. Regular physical activity is one of the easiest ways to stave off a host of undesirable ailments, including: osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few. Research has also linked exercise with better brain health and a reduction in risk for developing depression.
  5. Assume that they can hear/understand you: As their loved one's life draws to a close, families sometimes believe that their elder loses the ability to hear and understand them. But, Butcher points out that this is usually not the case. "At the end of life, hearing is one of the last things to go. We never know what they do and do not understand, so it's better to just assume that your loved one can hear you."
  6. Everyone needs a break—even you: Caregivers hear it all the time, but Mary Lou Bost, R.N., a professor at the Carlow University School of Nursing, feels that it bears repeating: "You'll be a better caregiver if you take a break," she says. Butcher echoes these sentiments, mentioning that—as difficult as it may be—it's important that even close family caregivers take time to "disconnect" from their loved one. "Everyone needs someone to come along side them and share the burden of care," she says.

It is this final directive—take care of yourself first—that many caregivers fail to honor; generally out of guilt or lack of awareness of the resources available to them.

Caregiving needs to be a team effort in order to avoid burnout.

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