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I'm a Caregiver, but Feel Like a Nurse!

Ask yourself: Are you suited for the medical jobs of family caregiving?

Could you manage the feeding tube inserted in your father's stomach? Would you be able to change bandages after your mother's heart surgery? Do you know how to give injections or check someone's blood oxygen level? If you're a caregiver, you may be expected to do all that — and more — as part of your daily routine.

See also: 5 rules for handling common nursing home complaints.

A new report from the AARP Public Policy Institute and the United Hospital Fund found that family caregivers are routinely performing tasks that a registered nurse would do in a hospital. And they are doing it largely without training and without professional help. No wonder caregivers say they their anxiety levels are high.

If you're a caregiver who may be facing such tasks, here are five questions you need to ask yourself:

1. Are you able and willing to do these tasks? Consider how often you'll have to give your family member a complex regimen of medications, for example, as well as the technical requirements for doing so. Also think about your other responsibilities and limitations, such as your job or your own health problems. Most family caregivers surveyed for the report said that they felt pressured to take on the task mostly because there was no one else to do it or insurance wouldn't pay for assistance. You may be able to find ways around these barriers, such as home care agency services or enlisting another family member. But, remember, to get help, you need to ask for it.

2. Do the tasks make you uncomfortable? Different people have different levels of tolerance for performing tasks that require invasive procedures, like wound care, or intimate care — such as managing incontinence for a parent. Don't let others — professionals or well-meaning friends or family — disparage your reactions. Your feelings are valid. Many health care professionals, who are trained to be objective, have the same emotions when it comes to this type of care for their own family members.

3. Can you get training? If your family member has been hospitalized, ideally the hospital nurse or doctor should give you instructions on medication management, wound care, operating machines and other follow-up care. Try to get this training before the day of discharge, when it is difficult to learn anything new. Home care nurses can provide instruction, so it is important to be there when the nurse visits. Remember that even if you get some training on operating a machine or monitor in the hospital, you may receive a different type or model once you get home. Further training may be available in the community through the Red Cross or another agency.

4. Who can you call with questions? Ask the doctor or pharmacist about medication questions. Nurses can answer most questions or can check with the doctor. Home medical technology companies usually have a toll-free number to call but the helpfulness of the responses may vary. Don't be afraid to ask questions and to ask for more help understanding the answers. You may feel as if you could pass for a nurse, but if you are not one, certain skills can be difficult to learn to do well.

5. How will you cope with providing this type of care? You may be proud of your ability to manage the complexities of medical care and keep your family member at home, but you may also feel depressed, anxious and isolated. These are normal reactions — and were common among surveyed family caregivers — but it is important to recognize that extended periods of negative feelings affect not only your mental health but also your physical health. Consider what options might be better for you and ultimately for your family member.

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