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Why Caregivers Should Become Champions for Other Caregivers

Helping others navigate their caregiving journey can reduce stress and provide emotional benefits

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Imagine a 55-year-old man named Frank who feels burnt out and irritable after six years of caring for his 86-year-old mother with mild dementia. Making her dinner, managing her pillbox, filling out her insurance forms, driving her to medical appointments — it has all become too much for him.

“I feel like I’m being buried,” he tells his wife. “I don’t want my mother to die, but this can’t go on forever.”

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When an acquaintance at work asks him for advice about how to best handle being a caregiver, however, Frank eagerly shares what he knows about dealing with stubborn care receivers and a confusing health care system. After a while, other coworkers start seeking him out for caregiving guidance. His minister identifies him as the go-to person at his church for fellow congregants to discuss their struggles with caring for aging parents.

What is happening here? On the one hand, Frank seems fed up with caregiving. On the other, he relishes that his lived experience as a caregiver gives him trustworthy “cred” and makes him a godsend to friends, colleagues and neighbors.

Frank has discovered it is highly gratifying to be a caregiver champion or advocate. Helping others on their caregiving journeys gives him greater motivation and drive to continue taking care of his mom.

Decades of social science research studies have found that doing good is generally good for us. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, found that advocates for others benefit psychologically in three ways — by feeling more competent, relating more closely to others and exercising personal autonomy and choice. A 2015 study in Clinical Psychological Science reported that helping others can decrease helpers’ everyday stress and worries.

As paradoxical as it may seem, these findings suggest that the more stressed and exhausted family caregivers are feeling, the more important it is for them to devote time and energy to supporting other caregivers. One might even infer that family caregivers who go to caregiver support groups, say, get more from giving compassionate advice than from receiving it during those group meetings.

Using one’s experiences and hard-won knowledge to make a positive difference creates positive meaning for us. It is empowering. How can caregivers become champions for other caregivers and help themselves at the same time? Here are some ideas:

Share your stories

It is helpful for others to hear what you have been through to learn what to expect for themselves and, oftentimes, feel validated in their own perceptions and emotional reactions. That is one of the key benefits of caregiver support groups, even more so than swapping advice.

For years, national advocates, such as the Caregiver Action Network and AARP (through its I Heart Caregivers program), have maintained online forums for caregivers to write their own and read others’ stories. Recently, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers launched its 4Kinds Network website, where caregivers can also share their experiences.

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Lean on me

Caregivers like Frank become informal sources of caregiving wisdom in their circles of friends and acquaintances. There are also more formal ways of advocating, with training and guidance from organizations.

For example, caregivers who volunteer as an AARP Friendly Voice caller may be matched with other caregivers to regularly call to check in with them. The national Community Care Corps funds local aging service agencies throughout the country to recruit volunteers to serve as peers and mentors to caregivers who could benefit from ongoing support.

Fighting the good fight

For many people, family caregiving is not just a job or personal mission. It is a social cause that needs the same things that all causes need to flourish — publicity, laws and policies, and, ultimately, money to pay for more caregiver support services.

Caregivers have many important roles to play in this public advocacy. For instance, the Caregiver Action Network’s Caregivers-in-Action Insight Panel connects volunteers with newspaper, TV and social media reporters to share their caregiver experiences and raise awareness of caregivers’ contributions and needs. AARP is always seeking volunteers to be “e-activists” who write emails to legislators advocating for bills to support older adults and their caregivers. The 4Kind Network also provides opportunities for caregivers to lobby lawmakers.

Caregivers, by definition, serve others. Whether they are advocating in their neighborhood or the nation, they can put what are sometimes trying caregiving experiences to greater purpose. In the process, they help us all.

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