By Dr. Jamie Huysman
LCSW, CFT

June is Men’s Health Month.

Sadly, when it comes to taking care of ourselves, the truth is, most men procrastinate. We put off yearly check-ups and suggested screenings. We’re busy. We’ll get to it when we can. We have more important things to do. We may know that something is not right, but we minimize the warning signs and deny any thought that something might be wrong. Even chronic red flags don’t raise an alarm; it’s not that serious. We secretly hope that It’ll pass. I’m a man, yes, I am.

It’s baffling that so many of us are so suborn when it comes to our physical health. Certainly, we are not immune nor are we invincible. Some of this can be attributed to generational differences. Do some of us still think that illness is a sign of weakness? If so, we’d better think again and take some preventative measures.

Prevention is common sense with a purpose. Prevention is the touchstone of 21 st century medicine. It has never been more important to self-advocate for our own health care.

In general, doctors should simply not be held up to the god-like status they were once afforded.

Your primary care doctor is your personal health partner, your professional caregiver; your first line of defense when it comes to your personal health.

Medical advancements are being made all the time, but most of us will not have access to cutting edge procedures and treatments until they become standardized, common protocols.

This can take years. The ability to pay for and the cost of such services are also a stumbling block.

The top causes of death among adult men in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention. Many of us may be genetically predisposed to these conditions which may warrant the need to be check for more often than those without family histories. The good news is that making a few lifestyle changes can significantly lower your risk of these common killers. Suggested measures include quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, any form of exercise, limiting alcohol intake, and managing stress.

The truth is that when we are healthy we live longer. Good health allows us to enjoy life and participate in activities with family and friends, see more branches added to the family tree.

Start today! Schedule that annual checkup with your primary care doctor, get screened for possible threats to your health and wellbeing. Many hospitals and clinics offer these during the month of June. When conditions are caught and treated early, our chances are much improved to overcome the disorder and side effects of treatment and medications.

The health decisions we make today can impact us as soon as tomorrow. Do it for your family, do it for you; to borrow a popular slogan, just do it.

Dr. Jamie co-authored the acclaimed Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health & Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss and was featured in The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, Voices of Caregiving and Voices of Alcoholism. Dr. Huysman writes for Caregiver SOS, Florida MD and Today’s Caregiver magazines and blogs on PsychologyToday.com.

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

The movie “Wonder Woman” is all the buzz these days. (Spoiler alert on the major themes of the film.) Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, is like many of us. Her life was pretty perfect – it doesn’t hurt that she is the daughter of Zeus and lived on Paradise Island with strong women to support her. When she discovers the perils facing the outside world in the form of World War I, she wonders who she would be if she didn’t answer the call for help. We all hear that call. Like so many of us caregivers, she jumped in naively believing that she could fix everything.

Caregivers / Wonder Woman have the best of intentions. We just want to help. But the complexity of life hits us. Some people deserve help, but perhaps not everyone. Many people are caring for relatives who were abusive, dysfunctional, absent, overbearing and who give nothing.

Do they deserve the sacrifices made on their behalf to care for them?

In the movie, Diana comes to realize that people are flawed and imperfect. But each of them embodies the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad. She chooses to help mankind realize their potential and give them their best chance of living a good life.

Our caregiving journey is much like this. We often get into caregiving without giving it much serious thought of where it will take us. Along the way, we realize how overwhelming this experience can be. We may be surprised about some of the things we find out about our loved ones who we thought we knew. It is not all rainbows and butterflies. But we don’t give up.

We are changed by the caregiving experience. We lose some of our innocence about people and institutions we thought we could rely on like medicine, hospitals and caring professionals. We can’t necessarily save the person we’re caring for no matter how hard we try. We experience loss, grief, and so many other emotions.

Like Wonder Woman, we can’t go back to our old lives. We may retreat to things we know and that bring us comfort.

Wonder is a key ingredient to caregiving. Wondering what we should do. Being in awe of the love we feel for our parents, spouse or children. Life is unscripted and it unfolds before us – surprising us. We are amazed at the strengths we find insides ourselves, and how much we can bear. At the end of the day, women (and men) wonder how they did it – and many shake their heads knowing they would do it all again if they heard the call for help.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491

By Dr. Jamie Huysman
LCSW, CFT

The rate of anxiety and depression, in boomers, seniors, and particularly caregivers, has gone undetected and is often ignored for far too long. Depression seems to be running rampant in society and the fact is that caregivers of the chronically ill are prone to grief and depression as a natural part of that journey. Current statistics support this. Grieving about the person they care for and the promise of an unknown future may lead to sleeplessness, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, fatigue, and many more.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of depression and find support for those feelings. You’re not crazy, you’re human. We all have days when we don’t feel our best — that’s normal. But when days turn into weeks and months of doom and gloom, feeling overwhelmed and isolated, things will not get better. They will get worse. Give yourself permission to seek help. No one needs to live with anxiety or clinical depression; you do have a choice. You can do something about it. We have come far in dealing with it pharmaceutically (where necessary), psychosocially and through integrative medical practices.

See your doctor or take advantage of a free in person or online screening at HelpYourselfHelpOthers.org.

Take some O2 and reclaim your spirit—you’re worth it. When you take care of your emotional health, you become an example of conscious self-care. As a caregiver, you have people depending on you, so you need to be able to depend on yourself. If no one told you they loved you today, I do!

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a Vulcan? Yes, I am talking about Mr. Spock’s planet of origin from the Star Trek series. I’ve been watching the entire The Big Bang series with my son the past few months, and they talk about Mr. Spock a lot. They even changed the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock. Don’t ask.

In any case, it has occurred to me that being a green-blooded Vulcan would absolutely benefit caregiving situations.

Logic: Vulcans don’t have human emotions that cloud clear-thinking and reason. It must be nice to be able to stand back, and make decisions that aren’t weighted with emotional baggage. Just the facts ma’am and I don’t care that you never loved me. For a Vulcan, anything less than the best decisions wouldn’t be logical.

No human emotions: The Vulcans can be a bit snooty on this, because emotions are sign of weakness and being less evolved. As a Vulcan, we caregivers wouldn’t have to carry around guilt, anger, fear, stress, depression and grief. What a relief. But we all know that love, laughter, and tenderness that are emotions that put us on the plus side of the caregiving experience. Perhaps we should agree to be like Mr. Spock on this one: half Vulcan and half human. Caregivers would have the best of both worlds if we only focused on the positive.

Vulcan nerve pinch (also known as the Vulcan death grip): I want this ability! It’s not really a death grip – it just puts people to sleep. If other relatives with all of their “helpful” advice or professionals who think I ask too many questions are giving me a hard time, I’d just pinch their neck, put them to sleep for a while, and walk over them to get some ice cream. Sweet. I’d also use it for those nights my loved one is up and about in the wee hours. A good night’s sleep is a thing of beauty.

Vulcan Mind Meld: Another must-have caregiver talent. Vulcans can put their hands on the face of someone else, say “my mind to your mind,” and they can read the other’s person’s thoughts. If you didn’t understand the doctor’s instructions, mind meld. If your spouse is still a complete mystery to you, mind meld. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s and you don’t know what they are saying, mind meld – but with extreme caution. (Many of us know what happened to Captain Picard and Spock’s dad who had Alzheimer’s.)

Super Strength: Vulcans are as strong as four men or ten men or something like that. Super strength is not only terrific for taking out the garbage, sweeping under automobiles, and getting Uncle Joe in the bathtub, we would still have energy left at the end of the day.

Vulcans work for the higher good of the many, not just the few or the one. They’re excellent with science and medicine, and a bonus on any landing party. Things just seem to be less complicated without all those pesky emotions. And they make loyal friends.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed being a caregiver, put on your Mr. Spock pointy ears and Starfleet shirt. Think clearly and recognize that negative emotions aren’t helping. Meld your mind to your loved one and see through his/her eyes. Put or visualize yourself putting a nerve pinch on those who are taking your energy and aren’t part of the solution. Be strong – and live long and prosper.

Carol Zernial is Executive Director of the nonprofit WellMed Charitable Foundation. A noted gerontologist, Ms. Zernial also serves as Chair of the National Council on Aging Board of Directors.

Family caregiving is unpaid care performed by family members and friends. It represents 90% of the long-term care in this country. In the United States, 18% of the population — or 43 million adults — care for an adult or child. Caregiving has been a mainstream part of life, but it is just now gaining visibility among health care professionals and elected officials.

In October 2016, Lucy Barylak and Nancy Guberman released Beyond Recognition – Caregiving & Human Rights in Canada: A Policy Brief, raising questions about treatment of family caregivers in Canada compared to the Universal Declaration of Human rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948.

Caregiver rights are not the same thing as human rights. The Caregiver Bill of Rights is an important first step in recognizing that caregivers have individual needs. It is time that we in the United States ask if the higher standard of basic human rights is being upheld for family caregivers.

Key human rights documents in the United States include:

  • Declaration of Independence
  • Constitution of the United States
  • The Bill of Rights
  • Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution
  • Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Just as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed in our founding documents, the countries of the world under the U.N. declared that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 22 of the Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Do U.S. family caregivers really enjoy these rights today? Almost 40% of caregivers quit their jobs to provide care, or due to lack of job flexibility. Holding a job becomes difficult when caregiving stretches five to ten years, and becomes more demanding.

Article 24 states that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, yet 60% of family caregivers of adults are working full or part-time, and have to provide up to 62 hours of caregiving each week.

Article 25 states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family . . . or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. AARP reports nearly  70% of family caregivers use their own money to care for loved ones. Many feel financially strained. Caregivers can spend almost half their income on expenses related to care of their loved one. MetLife estimates a caregiver who leaves the work force loses an average of $303,800 in wages and retirement.

Today, the primary mechanism for the protection of family caregivers is the Family Medical Leave Act. It provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of immediate family members, but 88% of workers aren’t covered under the law, and working caregivers can’t afford time off with no pay.

Tax credits to offset long-term care expenses proposed as part of the Act fall short. The credit of up to $3,000 is less than the average of $5,000 a caregiver spends, and it requires some sort of income.

If we dig into the root cause of the human rights issues related to caregiving, we find that Americans lack universal health care coverage. Because many Americans have to wait for coverage until age 65 under Medicare, most adults reach old age in poorer health than necessary. We also lack a comprehensive system of long-term services and supports. Currently, our system is basically 100% private pay or 100% public pay. Individuals are required to spend down to poverty, often pulling the caregiving family down with it.

For the first time in history, we have an aging boom combined with a longevity boom. Unfortunately, age is the single biggest risk factor for a myriad of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. The 5.5 million people with that disease today will ultimately grow to 16 million by 2050. There is no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. This disease alone could overwhelm the fragile system of family caregiving. At a time when more caregivers than ever will be needed, fewer will be available due to the long-term impact of lower birth rates in the United States.

As we move ahead, it is important to reframe caregiving in the U.S. as a human rights issue. We must evaluate if proposed policies for health and human services go far enough to protect the right to work, right to leisure and right to a standard of living. Most Americans are proud to have a role in returning the care that parents once provided to them. However, caregivers should not be expected to jeopardize their health, the welfare of their families, or their own solvency in old age.

Carol Zernial is executive director of the non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation, which offers complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Learn more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.