Healthcare Workers as Family Caregivers – Are Needs Different?

The number of family caregivers is increasing faster than we can count them.

Estimates provided by the Family Caregiver Alliance put the number near 65 million.

That was in 2012!

The number is surely higher right now. At that time it represented 29% of Americans.

Caregivers come in every dimension – men, women, daughters, sons, old, young, strong, frail, sandwiched, retired, business people, construction workers, writers, entrepreneurs and healthcare workers.

Many of us are called to be family caregivers and bring different skill sets to the tasks we complete.

Many things make family caregivers alike such as their love for their senior and many things make them different including their life experience.

How people face some of the everyday tasks and emotional changes during caregiving is largely based on their life experiences. Personal experiences, education and attitudes greatly affect our caregiving styles and abilities.

Let’s look at this a little bit more in depth.

Healthcare Workers As Family Caregivers

Most of us have aging parents or other senior loved ones at the present time or will in the not-too-distant future. Many of us are becoming family caregivers for our senior loved ones or have been a caregiver for many years.

Most of us are untrained caregivers, have had little experience navigating the healthcare maze, and at times need help from a variety of sources to complete caregiving tasks.

Healthcare workers don’t get a free pass from becoming a family caregiver just because they have devoted their lives to helping others. In fact, siblings who have medical knowledge are usually ‘volunteered’ to take the caregiving lead in many families.

People who are both family caregivers and professional health caregivers are referred to as double duty caregivers. Their numbers are uncounted so far, but undoubtedly growing.

Most medically trained family caregivers willingly assume the role of primary caregiver because they do have more pertinent knowledge. They understand the importance of adherence to the treatment plan, are able to quickly recognize symptoms, able to assess the situation more thoroughly and intervene with solutions perhaps a bit quicker than those caregivers who are untrained.

Unfortunately, there can be a downside to having medical knowledge. Healthcare workers who are family caregivers can face issues many people do not realize.

Challenges For Medically Aware Family Caregivers

When you are a nurse, health aid, pharmacist, doctor, dietitian or other health professional, you are expected to ‘know it all’ as a family caregiver. It can be very difficult to make your senior loved one, family members and even your senior’s health providers aware that you are not omniscient.

You need their help and understanding.

You are human, will make mistakes, don’t know everything, need an explanation from the doctor, need a helping hand and benefit from emotional support from others.

There are heightened expectations for caregivers who are also healthcare professionals, not only from other medical professionals but also family members who rely on trained family members to do the lion’s share of the caregiving.

Typically, the person with the highest expectations of the care you will provide is you. You put more pressure on yourself for your experience, knowledge and the fact that you are supposed to know about this.

‘Compassion fatigue’ is a phenomenon describing family caregivers who are also professional caregivers. Blurring boundaries between being a paid and unpaid caregiver can lead to this emotional, physical and social well-being impairment.

Here are some ways double duty caregivers become fatigued.

  • They have more difficulty removing themselves from the family caregiver role. They don’t seek out respite.
  • They have more trouble keeping a balance in their life.
  • They’re misunderstood by medical providers. Healthcare providers view them as skilled workers, not family. Other healthcare professionals can forget that family caregivers who are trained medical professionals are still daughters and sons. Just because they provide paid care to others for toileting or medical procedures, they don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing this for their parents or other senior loved ones.
  • They are untiring advocates. Trained medical professionals who are now family caregivers become the advocate for their senior loved ones. They talk with the doctor, get the instructions and make the decisions. At times, healthcare providers assume they know what is happening or needs to be done so won’t take the time to explain as well as they would with untrained caregivers.
  • Inability to flex work time. Many paid healthcare workers who are family caregivers are not able to manage their work time. They often can’t participate in flex time or staffing options, they can’t take off at a moment’s notice or get a leave of absence. What would people who need their care in the healthcare setting do without them?
  • Too much knowledge can be harmful. Oftentimes healthcare personnel have more medical education and understand more fully how much their senior loved one may be suffering or the trajectory of their disease. They tend to therefore see the repercussions of the disease and tend to take on their loved ones pain a bit more than the caregiver who isn’t as aware of the medical status. This can be extremely stressful.
  • Guilt can be overwhelming. Who doesn’t feel guilt when caring for loved ones such as are you doing enough, did you make the right decisions or are you doing too much? The medical professional takes on added guilt because they are supposed to know better. They are burdened by guilt when things don’t go as planned because they were in charge. What if the trained professional misses something?

Supporting Double Duty Caregivers

If you are a spouse, sibling, other family member or friend of a person who is both a family caregiver and a healthcare professional, you can help support them in much the same way you would support any family caregiver.

There are also additional ways we can be mindful of extra care needed by double duty caregivers.

  1. Healthcare providers should treat trained medical family caregivers the same as untrained family caregivers. They need to explain things clearly, look for signs of burnout, and give them access to support services that can help them avoid fatigue. Don’t assume they know everything.
  2. Since more than one in six people are working full or part time during the time when they are also family caregivers, help them balance their work time with their caregiving time. Ask what you can do to help them because they generally won’t ask. Give them help, run errands, give them a shoulder to lean on or anything else that will lessen their load.
  3. Encourage them to get assistance from others, even paid support, before burnout occurs.
  4. Provide them with opportunities for respite and encourage them to accept respite, whether from unpaid or paid helpers.
  5. Help them set boundaries on their time and their relationship with their senior; tell them it is ok to refuse to do some tasks because they are the child and in this instance not a trained medical professional. Suggest they find other ways to get some jobs done by others.
  6. Don’t add undue pressure to their routine by giving them all the more difficult or complicated tasks just because they are trained; share the load of caregiving tasks.
  7. Push them to care for their own health needs through medical checkups, prevention strategies and adequate sleep.
  8. Employers can enhance workplace support systems to help double duty caregivers achieve a better work life balance. Being sure that family caregivers are able to and fully participating in available flexible scheduling, resources especially mental health benefits and leave when needed will help them manage their duties both at work and at home and stay healthy.
  9. Government entities can work towards financial supports for home care, tax credits for caregiving and other social supports that will assist all family caregivers.

Avoiding burnout while providing care not only for their family members but also the community of patients they serve is an important goal for double duty caregivers.

While all family caregivers, especially long distance and working caregivers, face challenges to doing it all and maintaining their own health, it is a bit more stressful for healthcare professionals who add family caregiving to their list of responsibilities.

Family caregivers and healthcare professionals are by nature fixers. We want to help everyone but we need to start with ourselves so we have the strength to care for others.

4 thoughts on “Healthcare Workers as Family Caregivers – Are Needs Different?”

  1. This is well written and so very true! There is added stress if the family member you’re caring for is not a senior, but a younger person with a full life ahead of her/him! This article put into words everything that I felt before Mother passed away and some of which I still feel now! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you so much Courtney! I am glad you found it helpful. I know all too well the added stress of family members thinking you “know it all” and “can do it all” just because you have medical training that you experience. Good luck and thank you for all you do to care!

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. It is so true. The number of family caregivers is growing everyday in leaps and bounds. It is very stressful to be a family caregiver as is, but add to the situation a medical degree, training or experience and the position brings added challenges. And sometimes you can be too close to realize what is good for yourself and the care recipient.

    • Exactly! I am glad it resonated with you Bozena!
      Thank you for all you do as a caregiver and healthcare professional!

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