By Barbara Joyce Bedney, PhD, MSW, Director of Research and Evaluation, Center on Aging and Trauma, The Jewish Federations of North America
November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time when we recognize the millions of Americans who are caring for loved ones with illnesses, disabilities, and other physical, cognitive, and mental health conditions. From helping with shopping and transportation to providing complex medical care in their own homes, these family caregivers are a vital component of the health and long-term care system and a critical resource sustaining our national economy. For older adults facing the devastating toll of social isolation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also a lifeline to the outside world and source of hope for better days ahead.
But for many family caregivers, these are tasks made more difficult as a result of trauma in the lives of the people they are caring for.
Because trauma can lead to difficulties trusting others and to fears of intimacy, for example, and trust and intimacy are cornerstones of caregiving relationships, caring for individuals with a history of trauma can be particularly difficult and stressful. For older adults in particular, the changes associated with aging, such as retirement, the loss of family members and friends, and declining health can lead to the emergence of trauma symptoms years or even decades after a traumatic experience. Older adults with a history of trauma are also vulnerable to being retraumatized by sights, smells, events, and other stimuli associated with past traumatic experiences. Many Holocaust survivors, for example, hoard food as a result of the deprivation and starvation they experienced during the Holocaust. For these survivors, common caregiving activities around food, such as cleaning out the refrigerator, can be retraumatizing. The acute anxiety that can result from such retraumatization can be intensely stressful for family caregivers, who may not know what caused the sudden upset or agitation in their loved ones or know how to comfort them once it occurs.
At The Jewish Federations of North America Center on Aging and Trauma, we are working with our partners to create ‘person-centered, trauma-informed’ services for family caregivers to help them manage these types of trauma-related issues while they carry out their caregiving tasks. It is our way of answering the call of the Administration for Community Living to RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage) family caregivers. We are proud to be a part of this exciting national movement through this work and hope you will join us in RAISING the family caregivers in your communities.