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Caregivers Cope With Physical, Emotional Demands

August 5, 2008

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ For Marlene Lieberman, caregiving is her profession and a large part of her personal life.

She drives from Cooper City to Aventura, Fla., to visit her 95-year-old mother every weekend and talks on the phone with her every day. She also cared for her father and aunt who have both passed away.

Lieberman oversees 80 employees who care for more than 100 residents at The Renaissance, an assisted and independent living community in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

“It’s challenging having a professional career, your parent not living close to you, having family, and finding time to take care of your needs as well,” says Lieberman, who has the experience and resources to “maneuver the maze” more than most.

In the workplace, it’s a problem of “presenteeism” _ the opposite of absenteeism _ or not being focused and productive at work. How do workers with caregiving responsibilities stay focused at work? How can employers help them?

“It does affect the bottom line. If people don’t pay attention to what they’re doing, they make more mistakes,” said Cheryl Koopman, associate professor at Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. She studied “presenteeism” in employees at the San Mateo, Calif., health department.

“Part of you is absent, the part of you able to focus and get the job done,” she said.

Caregiving responsibilities can strike at any time: for a special-needs child, spouse, parent or friend. For many workers, caring for parents or a partner who becomes ill is part of their everyday routine.

Sometimes, they feel overwhelmed and out of control.

“It’s not just kids dealing with their parents; there’s a lot more spousal caregiving. You’re still working and your wife’s had a stroke,” says David Levy, chief executive of Family Caregiver Advocacy Group who holds support groups and training for caregivers at Mae Volen Senior Center in Boca Raton, Fla.

There’s more awareness about the problem because of the sheer numbers _ more than 50 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year. An estimated 60 percent of those people are working full time or part time and 40 percent of those have children younger than 18, according to the National Family Caregivers Association.

“If you excise caregivers from the workplace you wouldn’t have a workforce,” said Levy, who tries to get companies to hold lunch seminars and offer other support to caregivers. “Executives cannot keep turning their back on aging issues and caregiving comes with that.”

Employers need to offer broad support that may include caregiving resources, access to support groups and flexible hours.

“It takes a cultural change. If a middle manager experts you to be in your seat eight hours a day performing, you’re never going to say anything to anybody,” Levy said.

As a result, many caregivers stay “under the radar” in the workplace, he said. Caregivers in his support groups are always talking about, “How do I avoid being seen? I need to work, but I also need to be at home.”

Employers should tell caregivers, “We don’t want you to flounder” and provide emotional support as well as resources, Levy says. “We’re glad to have you in the workforce. If you’re a caregiver, here are some numbers to call.”

As an elder-care mediator, Levy works to put out the biggest “fire” affecting the caregiver, whether it’s getting their spouse on Medicaid or involving far-flung family members in a decision about a loved one entering hospice.

“Caregiving is 85 percent practical problem solving,” he says.

Don’t be afraid to seek help, Lieberman says. After her father died five years ago, she hired an aide for her mother five days a week. Then she found assisted living she felt good about in Aventura, where her mother wanted to live.

“It’s important to seek support from people who are close in your life, people you know you can get emotional support from,” she says.

Lieberman also combats stress by walking her dog in the morning, bicycling at night and scheduling social activities with friends.

“If you’re not in a healthy place, you’re really ineffective for everyone,” she says.

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(c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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