By Regina Salmi Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan Being a caregiver is one of the most difficult roles to fulfill, yet with the population of people age 60-plus continuing to grow, it is a role one in three people find themselves taking on. Some of us are thrust into caregiving due to an illness or an accident. Oftentimes though, we discover that the caregiving role has crept in and slowly taken over our lives. It might start out simply — taking a loved one to the grocery store on occasion. Then occasionally turns into every Wednesday at 3 p.m. along with doctors’ appointments several times a month. On these trips you notice difficulties with money or paperwork, so you double-check their bills, discover they are overpaying, and now you’re a shopper, bill payer and health advocate. Sarah Sobel, Caregiver Resource Coordinator at Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan observes, "When I talk with caregivers, often times I go through some daily living tasks and I ask them about how much assistance they are providing to their loved one with these activities. Many caregivers don’t realize how much they are providing assistance on a daily basis until it is reflected back to them." We discover we've become a caregiver and didn't even know it. What starts out as lending a hand gradually grows into another job. The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates caregivers spend at least 20 hours per week caring for a loved one. Yet, many people in this position still don’t consider themselves caregivers, especially if their loved one continues to reside in their own home. We regard these tasks as the duties or responsibilities that a spouse, a child, a parent or even a friend undertakes for a person they love, so we juggle the caregiver role with other parts of our lives, like our family and social life. Fulfilling the duties of caregiver without recognizing we are a caregiver can result in stress, anger and ultimately burnout, putting our own health and wellbeing at risk. "This is why I encourage caregivers to build a village — whether formal or informal — for the times when caregiving becomes hard to handle," Sobel said. "Do they have a friend they can call to sit with their loved one, while they take a walk? Maybe their loved one is a good candidate for an adult day program — where they might receive some attention and the caregiver can have some time off to take care of themselves." When we recognize ourselves as caregivers, we embrace that we are going above and beyond typical expectations, and we also then come to understand that taking care of ourselves is paramount to our being able to take care of others. This realization also opens doors to resources that can help support us in our new role. Taking advantage of the resources available in our communities helps caregivers build that "village" Sobel says is important. "It is helpful when caregivers can come together — to share with each other about their experiences" and begin building a support network, she said. Getting connected to resources early can also help us assess the growing needs of the person we're caring for and, if necessary, get connected to professional caregiving services. If you're interested in understanding more about caregiving and the resources available, contact Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan at (888) 456-5664 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the Caregiver Resource Network website at www.caregiverresource.net to learn more about available resources.