Clinical psychologists and caregivers Julia Mayer and Barry Jacobs.

Clinical psychologists and caregivers Julia Mayer and Barry Jacobs.

Caregiving often comes with difficulties and lack of cultural support, even though it can offer the caregiver unexpected joys and possible tighter family bonds, experts say.

“We see a primarily negative view of caregiving in our culture,” explained Dr. Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist who has spent his life helping patients build stronger relationships with family members who have had heart attacks or stroke. “But people can get positive rewards from caregiving – confidence, competence dealing with medical staff and issues, spiritual rewards and renewed family closeness, to name a few.”

During National Family Caregivers Month this November, Jacobs and his wife, Dr. Julia Mayer, who is also a clinical psychologist, are working to encourage caregivers to repair rifts and be grateful for “this gift of time.”

“We worked with clients who were caregivers for years, but you don’t know what it is like until you are in it. The anger, guilt, feeling you wish you could do more, negotiating with your siblings – you have to experience it,” said Mayer, director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and a co-author with Jacobs of AARP Meditations for Caregivers – Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family.

The couple, who have been married for 26 years, found new meaning in their work when they took on caregiving for their own parents.

It was harder than expected, they found.

“But at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do and we’re glad to have done it,” said Jacobs, a longtime volunteer with the American Heart Association.

If tension is rising among adult siblings caring for an aging parent, Mayer offers this advice:

  • Don’t hide from your family. Have an honest discussion about the workload and balance.
  • Know that the level of care each person provides won’t be equal, but do expect a contribution from each person.
  • Long-distance caregivers can struggle to find a role. “Not all help is helpful,” Mayer said. “Don’t criticize or suggest, but instead ask how the primary caregiver is doing, support them and visit or call when you can.”
  • Develop a plan to keep all caregivers on the same page about the patient’s medical condition, treatment and caregiving plan. “Knowing who will do what for whom helps everyone feel connected and when the caregiving job is done, the family will feel better knowing they rallied together,” said Jacobs.

Caregiving is a chance for family – no matter how far-flung – to pull together toward a common goal.

“Everyone is watching your choices,” Jacobs said. “You don’t need to make the same sacrifices as someone else, but you do need to be on the same team.”