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Help for Family Caregivers in Oregon

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Yvonne Smith knows the physical, mental and emotional toll family caregivers face because she’s been through it herself. Three times.

“The reality of caregiving is going to affect us all in some way,” says Smith, 57, of Milwaukie, who teaches human services and gerontology at Clackamas Community College, outside Portland. She cared for both her parents, as well as a brother who had Parkinson’s disease. As a member of AARP Oregon’s Executive Council, she also works to help other family caregivers access the support they need.

For caregivers—whether experienced or recently thrust into the role—there are steps they can take to best navigate their situation. And there are resources available from AARP and other groups to make the overwhelming manageable.

November is National Family Caregivers Month, which spotlights the 42 million American adults—one-sixth of the population—who care for someone 50 or older, according to a 2020 report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. These figures will only increase as the oldest boomers approach an age where they may need complex medical care.

“Family caregivers dedicate millions of unpaid hours to help their loved ones remain at home—where they want to be,” said Bandana Shrestha, AARP Oregon state director. “They are the backbone of Oregon’s long-term services and supports for older adults and people with
disabilities.”

Preparing for the future

Smith, who has spoken at several AARP Oregon caregivers events, says people are starting to recognize that they may have to provide care for an older loved one and are preparing for the duties. But she also worries they may be too focused on the person’s immediate needs and not fully realize how quickly their physical abilities can change.

People may plan to house their loved one in an upstairs bedroom without thinking about what may happen if they need a wheelchair. They may think they’ll be able to rely on paid caregivers—in the home or a long-term care community—who may not be available, because of cost or other factors.

Based on data from PHI, a national eldercare and disability services organization, Oregon had only 10.4 paid caregivers per 1,000 residents in 2020, below the national rate of 13.8 per 1,000. Smith says the state needs to take this shortage seriously because the situation will worsen as the demand for caregivers increases.

Vicki Schmall, 75, an AARP volunteer and executive director of the nonprofit Aging Concerns, in West Linn, also worries about the shortage of paid care workers, as they help family caregivers balance the needs of a loved one with personal needs.

“Caregivers need to recognize the importance of caring for themselves,” she says. The AARP/National Alliance for Caregiving report said 36 percent of family caregivers described their situation as highly stressful; only 41 percent said their overall health was “excellent” or “very good.”

AARP Oregon has resources to help them manage their role, at aarp.org/orcares. That site includes links to state-specific resources, providers and support organizations, as well as AARP caregiving guides in multiple languages.

Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend.

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