When we talk about aging in place, we also need to discuss the needs of caregivers. After all, people don’t age in place in a vacuum; often in the aging journey a helping hand is required.
So what do caregivers need to thrive in a community that embraces aging-in-place?
Access to a robust health care system: We know there is often a geographic disparity in health care resources. Larger cities tend to have access to greater options and higher quality care than rural areas, though those resources are often strained by high demand.
What I found when my parents retired to a small town in the mountains is that health care options were limited and quality was often lacking. Primary care physicians were constantly overbooked, with overflowing waiting rooms and long waiting lists to get an appointment. This can deter people from seeking care, meaning small health problems may become bigger ones. Tests that are routine in city and suburban areas may not be available in rural communities, requiring a lengthy drive to the nearest big town offering such services. Small-town hospitals are not equipped to handle more complex cases, meaning those patients typically get punted to the nearest hospital capable of taking their case.
In my mother’s case, when she required emergency surgery for a tumor blocking her colon that had gone undiagnosed for a month despite numerous tests, the local hospital sent her to the nearest city, which was an hour-and-a-half away. She ended up staying there for a couple of months. This added another layer of complexity to my caregiving situation.
Caregiver education classes: When a patient is discharged home, families usually receive a packet of information that includes the medications the patient is on, follow-up care and instructions for care at home. The hospital says to call them if there are questions, but I found the nurses, when I could get a hold of one, to be rushed and not all that helpful. Once my mother was at home, I had to figure out, through some messy trial and error and a few YouTube videos, how to change her colostomy bag. A class on colostomy care would have greatly helped me. There are family caregivers who are performing fairly complex medical care procedures at home, and it would help them to have some kind of training.
Caregiver support groups
Caregiving is a tough, and often lonely endeavor. Caregivers need to be supported through every stage, from the moment a health crisis strikes to the death of a loved one. There are numerous in-person and online caregiver support groups located across the country, but there could be better promotion of these services, because often, caregivers don’t even know they exist.
A caregiver-friendly community would offer at least one form of alternative transportation. It doesn’t do any good if a community offers classes and support groups if the caregiver can’t get to them. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it could include welcoming a ride-share service. For those aging-in-place, transportation issues often are one of the earlier struggles. My parents continued to live on their own for years because their rural community offered an affordable, door-to-door shuttle service. Local governments tend to frown upon supporting transit projects because they don’t make money, but dependable, affordable transportation choices are crucial to supporting an aging-in-place community.
While caregivers may feel like they are performing at superhero levels at times, they are human. Caregivers require breaks from an often stressful, depressing situation in order to tend to their own mental and physical care. Taking regular breaks can make for a better caregiver and a happier care recipient. But in rural areas, respite care services are often difficult to find. Like with education and support groups, communities need to better promote the respite services available in the area.
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.