By Dr. Jamie Huysman

A dedicated caregiver’s heart is one of gold, and many should be awarded purple hearts!

Caregivers fight the good fight every day. There is no question that caregivers are constantly putting their hearts (and sometimes souls) on the line.

So, it’s really no coincidence that February is Heart Health Awareness Month. It is, after all, that time of year when hearts are everywhere, so it makes sense to use this time to remind people of the importance of keeping a healthy heart.

However, we are a stubborn species. We seem to put more effort into seeing to it that our cars run well than we do about maintaining a healthy heart!

Heart disease is known to be a leading cause of death, claiming a life every 42 seconds, and leaving a trail of broken hearts in its wake. Stress, poor nutrition, uncontrolled high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, and genetic predisposition are all common means to a preventable end for caregivers as well as those they care for.

The American Heart Association website

Tips to maintaining a healthy heart.

“True healthcare reform starts in your kitchen, not in Washington” — ~Anonymous

Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW is Vice President of Provider Relations and Government Affairs at WellMed Medical Management, a UnitedHealth company. He has almost 30 years of medical and behavioral health experience in nonprofit and for profit corporate leadership roles in both hospital and managed care environments.

He co-founded the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation that created a new level of care for caregivers around the country and received Florida’s Social Worker of the Year Award for that work in 2008. Since 1992, his program TV Aftercare TM has provided millions of dollars worth of follow-up care for talk, court and reality guests.

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.

Caregivers need a lot of light in our lives. We often spend too much time inside, behind the curtains, at home, in a hospital or in a care facility. This can lead us to spend too much time in the dark, in our own heads, and not enough time interacting with the bright world outside.

I met a Vietnam veteran who has literally been carrying a suitcase with him every day for the past 45 years. Inside are photos about his war experiences. He needed to talk about them, to air out his mind, and allow someone else to hear his story. He wanted to help others learn from his experience.

Sound familiar? As caregivers, we need to check to see if we picked up some baggage in the dark times of our lives.

Anger, anxiety, and stress are common companions for us. I know the last year of my mother’s life had plenty of these emotions to go around. Allowing our struggles to live in the shadows leaves them in the shadows. The layers of guilt and anger don’t go away until we see them, deal with them, and let them go.

There are therapists, clergy and support groups where we can safely express our fears and frustrations. We shouldn’t be afraid to use them. The simple act of talking to someone else can make a world of difference.

I would not want anyone to wait almost the entirety of their lives to make peace with their experiences. Let’s all open our suitcases and take out the stories we need to tell now. We’ll be able to see the difference between the shadow and the sun, and our steps will be so much lighter.

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. Learn more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

My mother recently passed away. This is the common ending of so many caregiving journeys. For us, it was six years after the official Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But it could have been cancer, end-stage renal disease, heart failure, pneumonia, or a number of other conditions that prompt people to pick up the mantle of caregiving.

I was standing in line at the busy Starbucks at the airport to go home. I felt on edge with the pushing of caffeine-craving people with their luggage, the overly loud voice of the woman on her cell phone behind me strategizing about the latest office brouhaha, and the incessant questions of the guy in front of me who wanted to know something about every pastry in the case.

And then it all fell away: the noise and the people. Because it wasn’t important. I was ultimately going to get my coffee and make my flight. And I thought about how helpful this ability to let go of unimportant annoyances would be for caregivers every day. Why did I save my hidden superpower until the end?

It now seems that caregiving built layers around me, like an onion or flower bud, that it is time to shed. At the center is me as I really am. Here, too, is my mother as she really was, without the disease. The next layers are the family and friends who have been on the journey with us. We are surrounded by the layer of the illness.

The next layers are the doctors, nurses and professionals who tried to help us along the way. There are the direct care workers from the assisted living facilities and those who came to our home. There are the medications, medical supplies, books and stuff we used along the way.

So now we don’t need these things or many of the people, and we will let them go. We will be forever grateful to the people who gave my mother the same love and care that we wanted to give her every day. And death has finally gotten rid of the illness that surrounded us.

After removing this layer of disease, we are back to just us: the family and friends. At the center is my mom as she always was before she was sick and will always be in my heart. And me – the person I always was and now the person I want to become in the future. Because I am different now, as we all are after this journey: I was a caregiver.

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.

Carol-PR-Photo-10-1-11-SMALLERI’ve always sung with the music in the car. I’ve been that person you pull alongside at the intersection who is in the car alone, mouth moving, singing away. And yes, people have made fun of me. It hasn’t stopped me. I know the words to thousands of songs, maybe tens of thousands.

I don’t know if I sang too much or sang the wrong way, but in the past few years, I have lost my singing voice. Like Julie Andrews, sort of, without the fame, fabulous singing career or new turn as a children’s book author.  Some people are over-achievers.

This loss has been a huge blow to me personally, regardless at the relief of my passengers and the drivers around me. While there is probably some surgical procedure that would help, I’m not willing at this time to go that route. Instead, I’m now listening to the radio and to all of the music I have stored on my various devices. It’s a whole new world.

I have rediscovered why I enjoy the musicians in my collection. I hear the voice, the instruments, the highs and lows of the song very clearly. I find it almost equally satisfying and it brings a smile to my face.

Caregiving can be like that. We experience the changes in our loved one, the disease, this different relationship first as a tremendous loss, and we wonder how life will go on as we know it.  We are sad and we try to get back to where we were. But at some point, we face the facts. There isn’t any going back.

We can choose to go forward. As we say in our Stress-busting Program, we may not be able to change our caregiving situation, but we can change how we react to it. We can reframe our situation, and look for the positive.

I have recently witnessed this change as well. When my mother who has Alzheimer’s was living at home, her behaviors were very difficult to manage. My father was exhausted trying to keep up with her. Now that she lives in the memory unit of a residential care facility, my father can see my mother again. He can see past the disease to the smile on her face, to the satisfaction in being in each other’s company. Sometimes, they even hold hands, which I haven’t seen them do in years. This brings a smile to my face too.

Do we all have down days when we miss singing or miss the loved one as we knew them? Sure. It happens all the time. But we can rediscover the small things in life that can still make us smile and bring warmth to our hearts. That’s caregiving.

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

Carol-PR-Photo-10-1-11-SMALLERFor the past 30 years, professionals who work with the elderly and with caregivers have been preparing for the aging of the baby boomers, the 74 million people who are now turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 every day. It’s time to go back to that future of aging and see if we are indeed ready. What did we get right over the past 30 years? What do we need to rethink? And what is new that we need to consider?

First, our concern about the lack of retirement savings for upcoming seniors and boomers was well founded. The Insured Retirement Institute says that only 55% of boomers have any dedicated retirement savings besides Social Security. Of these, most have less than $100,000 saved, which averages only $7,000 a year for an average retirement of 20 years. Can most of us get by on only $7,000 a year? The financial status of aging boomers may be the defining issue of this generation, impacting policy, eligibility, and effectively ending the school-work- retirement life cycle. As well-known gerontologist Ken Dychtwald has been saying, older people will want to continue working and many will need to continue working. This shift may go beyond the older generations. As younger people reject the notion of longer work hours and strive for work/life balance, voluntary episodic work could reshape our society.

Equally important is the fact that we still don’t have a comprehensive long-term services and supports system. As an example, five members of my family currently live in residential care facilities at a cost of $32,900/month or $394,800/year. With our combined family resources, we can’t afford this for five people. The 100% private pay or 100% public pay system is unsustainable.

We must address the extremely low wages paid to working caregivers to ensure we have an adequate and capable Care Force for these millions of boomers. They are predicted to be less healthy and more costly to the health care system over the next 14 years than the previous generation (United Health Foundation). Half of all direct care workers rely on Medicaid and food stamps. Their pay is as low as $16,240/year to take care of our families, and their own. Unpaid family caregiving as the backbone of our long-term care system also takes a heavy toll. The average woman who stops working to care for a family member loses $303,000 in wages and benefits over the course of her lifetime.

So what do we need to rethink? Leo Buscaglia, the author and speaker who used to tell us to hug each other often, once said that the words “and they lived happily ever after” are the most tragic words in all of literature. In our American culture, “helping seniors remain independent in their own homes” may be our tragedy. A recent study of 3 million people conducted by Brigham Young University now says that loneliness and isolation are the new smoking, and that social isolation can be a more powerful predictor of heart attack and stroke than high blood pressure or obesity. And, a person who feels lonely is at as high of a risk as someone who actually lives alone without social interaction. Is our push to help people remain isolated behind the walls of our homes causing greater disease, disability, and unhappiness in our older years?

We also need to rethink traditional aging services as provided by the Older Americans Act. Boomers and seniors expect consumer-focused services and choice. The inflexibility of the current system does not serve us well. The middle class also suffers under the current system. People with very low incomes have access to Medicaid and are eligible for services, and people with higher incomes can pay for their own. Familes in the lower middle class are not eligible and can’t afford to pay. They are almost literally a dying breed.

If we look at the new possibilities that exist, technology is the new frontier. Smart phone technology is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of the world. It may be able to foster interaction and help people to access the services they need from wherever they are. We don’t want to lose in-person interaction, but the ability to access tailored goods, services, social interaction and entertainment in the palm of our hands is a game changer.

We know the future hasn’t been written yet. The doom and gloom scenario that seniors and boomers will drain the resources of the country is only a possibility if nothing changes – and things are already changing. We know the secret: the increase in older people has the potential to be an increase in time, talent and resources that can go to help so many of societies issues. Long life is a gift to be discovered and used to advantage.

We have a short window to plan our glide path to the future of aging and caregiving right now. Or, as Yogi Berra once said,” If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up some place else.”

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