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Reading: Care of the elderly - A family matter

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Many people wrongly believe that when people reach old age, their families place them in nursing homes. They are left there in the hands of strangers for the rest of their lives. Their grown children visit them only occasionally, but more often, they do not have any regular visitors. The truth is that this idea is an unfortunate myth; a fictitious story. In fact, family members provide over 80 percent of the care that elderly people need.

Because Americans are living longer than ever, more psychologists and social workers have begun to study care-giving to improve the care of the elderly. They have found that all caregivers share a common characteristic: All caregivers believe that they are the best persons for the job, for different reasons. One caregiver said that she had always been close to her mother. Another was the oldest child. Another was the youngest child. In other words, they all felt that they could do the job better than anyone else. Social workers interviewed caregivers to find out why they took on the responsibility of caring for an elderly, dependent relative. They discovered three basic reasons. Many caregivers believed that they had an obligation to help their relatives. Some stated that helping others made them feel more useful. Others hoped that by helping someone now, they would deserve care when they became old and dependent.

When people care for elderly relatives, they often do not use available community services, such as adult day care centers. If the caregivers are adult children, they are more likely to use such services, especially because they often have jobs and other responsibilities. In contrast, a spouse, usually the wife, is much less likely to use support services or to put the dependent person in a nursing home. Social workers discovered that the main reason for this difference was the fear of poverty. An ill, elderly person may live for years, and medical care and nursing homes are very expensive. An elderly couple's savings can disappear very quickly. The surviving spouse, usually the wife, can be left in poverty. As a result, she often tries to take care of her husband herself for as long as she can.

Researchers have found that caring for the elderly can be a very positive experience. The elderly appreciated the care and attention they received. They were affectionate and cooperative. However, even when care-giving is satisfying, it is hard work. Social workers and experts on aging offer caregivers and potential caregivers help when arranging for the care of an elderly relative. One consideration is to ask parents what they want before they become sick or dependent. Perhaps they prefer going into a nursing home and can select one in advance. On the other hand, they may want to live with their adult children. Caregivers must also learn to be assertive and ask for help from others, especially siblings. Brothers and sisters are often willing to help, but they do not know what to do.

We can expect to live longer lives than ever before in American history. Caring for the elderly and being taken care of can be a mutually satisfying experience for everyone involved.



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