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Caregivers deserve thanks from us all

Alzheimer's disease has received increased awareness in recent years as the number of individuals diagnosed continues to increase. Considering one American is diagnosed with Alzheimer's every 68 seconds, this population needs greater attention. However, the many family members and friends who act as caregivers, providing great amounts of support, remain forgotten on the sidelines.

Caregivers provide our community with a great service and receive little recognition for the hours they put in on a daily basis. Working as an emergency medical technician doing hospice transports really shed light on this population for me. I believe widespread attention is deserved.

As an EMT, I have interacted with many caregivers in some incredibly stressful situations. Whether it be having the family member admitted into the hospital or entering into hospice, there was always a story to tell of their plight as caregivers. More times than not, my ambulance rides turned into mini-counseling sessions. What these individuals were looking for was recognition of their sacrifices, struggles and journeys through the disease.

Caregivers provide multiple services to their loved ones, ranging from dressing and feeding to administering medications and incontinence care. These hard-working individuals feel much stress in their daily lives, and very few see their routines to be something of worth. The fact is that in 2011 alone, 17.4 billion hours of unpaid care were provided by family and friends of individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia. These are individuals who juggle care giving with families, careers and their own physical health. One man I spoke with was in his 80s and worried about who would care for his wife when he no longer could. Just talking about his concerns and having someone willing to listen and understand seemed to make a huge difference in his stress level.

Caregivers have the incredible opportunity to prevent their loved ones from entering into long-term care facilities and ensure that proper care is given. However, this comes at a hefty price for many. Caregivers are forced to change multiple aspects of their lives.

Most people are able to eat in restaurants, go to the movies and take vacations. Many caregivers feel trapped in their own homes, because their loved ones cannot be left alone without supervision. Families can be torn apart by the stress and changes within the home. Caregivers may need to sacrifice rooms in their home for their loved ones to stay in, as well as financial resources to cover the cost of living of an additional person.

Many times, my aunt missed a day of work to cover for an aide who did not show up to care for my grandmother. Situations like this cause stress and can feel like there is a lack of control over your own life. Other signs of caregiver stress include depression, withdrawal, poor sleep patterns, exhaustion and anxiety. Caregivers' physical health can suffer as well, with ulcers, back problems and a worsening of chronic illnesses.

Caregivers do an amazing service to their loved ones and to the community as a whole. Valued at $210 billion, the hours of unpaid caregiving per year are astronomical and show the dedication of these individuals toward their family and friends with Alzheimer's. The least we can do as neighbors, friends, family and community members is recognize the amazing work that these individuals do, and take a moment to say thank you.