When an elder is hospitalized, the primary objective of the medical staff is to tend to their immediate medical needs, hopefully making them well enough to return home. Each member of an aging adult’s health care team is integral to the overall success of this mission.
However, there is one type of health care provider that delivers much-needed information and support to both family caregivers and their elderly loved ones: nurses.
Why Nurses Are so Important
There are many different levels of nursing, and these dedicated health care professionals perform a wide range of tasks that may include monitoring vital signs, managing medications, coordinating care, executing treatment plans and assisting with activities of daily living (ADLs).
A significant portion of the hands-on care that elders receive while in the hospital and in long-term care settings is provided by certified nursing assistants (CNAs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), and advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNPs).
All 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 act as a liaison between an elder, their caregiver and their doctor and to serve as a knowledgeable touchstone of support, education and information for patients and families alike.
Nurses’ Guidance for Family Caregivers
We asked a team of veteran nurses about tips they often share with patients’ family members. Their advice centers on how to approach caregiving with patience and understanding to benefit both the person you’re caring for and yourself. Ultimately, their guidance boiled down to following key insights:
- Aging adults are not children.
This “tip” may seem obvious, but it can be challenging not to view an elderly loved one in a childish light. This is especially true for those who suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s disease that can cause elders to act immaturely or inappropriately. Caregivers can easily get caught up in compensating for a senior’s difficulties. Of course, they mean no disrespect, but being too assertive or overprotective can undermine a loved one’s remaining abilities and prevent them from feeling a sense of control over their life.
“Try to remember that your loved one has led a full life and deserves respect,” urges Carri Butcher, a registered nurse at Hospice of the Ozarks with more than two decades of nursing experience. “Be patient and make sure they are safe, but allow them as much independence as possible.”
- Keep an eye out for depression.
Depression is a common occurrence in older adults, but Butcher cautions caregivers against viewing this mental health issue as a normal side effect of aging. “Depression in the elderly can and should be treated,” she says. Loneliness, chronic illness and a loss of independence can all contribute to clinical depression in seniors. Understanding the warning signs of depression and acting on them in a timely manner can help spare your loved one unnecessary physical and emotional pain and ensure they receive the help they need. Treatments like anti-depressant medications, therapy, gentle exercise and increased social opportunities can all help boost a senior’s mood.
- Recognize what your loved one has lost.
“The things that keep us motivated as adults are often lost as we age,” explains Butcher. The most profound loss experienced by elders is an overall loss of independence. This 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 to avoid taking these outbursts to heart. “Caregivers frequently don’t understand and don’t know how to deal with such behaviors,” she says. “But it’s important to try not to view them as personal attacks.”
The loss of one’s mobility and/or mental faculties often leads to many other monumental losses that can be very frightening. Do your best to work with your loved one to devise solutions that can maximize their remaining abilities and preserve their established routines. Minor adaptations and changes in perspective can have major beneficial effects.
- It’s important to keep moving.
Your loved one may be resistant to physical activity due to issues like pain, stiffness and changes in balance that can affect mobility, but it’s vital that they get their blood pumping in some way on a regular basis. In fact, movement can help improve these bothersome symptoms, and consistent physical activity is one of the easiest ways to stave off a host of ailments, including osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. Research has also linked exercise with better brain health and a reduction in risk for developing depression. Even a leisurely ten-minute walk outside each day can be a constructive addition to an elder’s routine.
- Always assume that your elder can hear/understand you.
Family members sometimes believe that a loved one at the end of life loses the ability to hear and understand those around 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.”
Talking with or playing music for a loved one who may not seem aware of their surroundings can be a very soothing experience for both of you. Try to overcome the awkwardness and continue engaging with elders regardless of whether they are able to respond. While senses may dull with age, there are still ways of conveying affection. Touch is one of the most important and powerful senses that can be used for communicating.
- Everyone needs a break—even you.
Caregivers hear this particular piece of advice all the time, and it can grate on their nerves. However, Mary Lou Bost, a registered nurse and professor at the Carlow University College of Health and Wellness in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, feels that it bears repeating: “You’ll be a better caregiver if you take regular breaks.” Butcher echoes these sentiments, mentioning that, as difficult as it may be, it’s important for family caregivers take time away from their loved ones to recharge their batteries. “Every caregiver needs someone to come alongside them and share the burden of care,” she says. “This is true for medical professionals like nurses and for family caregivers. One person simply cannot do it all without putting their own health on the line.”
It is this final directive that many caregivers fail to honor—generally out of guilt or lack of awareness of the resources available to them. Providing care needs to be a team effort to prevent primary caregivers from developing burnout. Finding support and respite care can be difficult and expensive. It can even seem impossible, but there are resources available to help reduce the burden of caring for an aging loved one. You can read about different types of respite care and where to find them here.