Let’s start the New Year with some thoughts, and a message of hope, about a daunting challenge for many families: elderly care. And it’s not limited to families. Increasingly, friends and neighbors find themselves in the unexpected role of caring for older people who gradually, and irreversibly, lose the ability to care for themselves, while their own families have abandoned them.

There are many areas for comment on the rising tide of elderly care on Long Island. For now, let’s keep our focus on the caregivers, for they can assure an older person’s remaining at home rather than moving to institutional care.

It’s not that there is something inherently wrong with institutional care for the elderly, if the facility where they go works for them and their needs. Long Island is blessed with a variety of residential settings of good quality that host those who need elderly care.

But for those who continue their final years at home, it’s usually family members or friends who make that possible. Often they assume the role simply by helping with errands. But the role can unexpectedly mushroom into a deep and protracted responsibility. Americans live longer now, and the medical treatments that make longer lives possible often have side-effects that add considerably to a caregiver’s work.

The AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving tell us that more than 55 percent of Long Islanders over the age of 50 indicate that they are either currently, or in the past five years, been a caregiver for an adult loved one. Also, 54 percent report it is extremely or very likely they will be a caregiver for an adult loved one in the next five years.

Keeping our focus on the caregiver, we can identify with their priority to keep their loved one in the familiar surroundings of their home. The burden of care in a home setting, however, whether for a family member or friend or neighbor, can be overwhelming.

But don’t despair. Follow some of the basics and you can make your caregiving role a success for you both. Keep your “tank filled,” even though as a caregiver, you give and give, day after day. Take walks and other such breaks, and be ever so conscious of sleep, and plenty of it. Learn about meditation, even aromatherapy, and get out into the sunlight, even for a few minutes at a time. Going with the flow, expecting a crisis, sometimes a series of them, with a determination for doing your best, will be a surprisingly effective approach.

If adding such activities to your caregiving role seems impossible, as every noble task seems at first, then there’s a fabulous, helpful resource that has just recently arrived on Long Island, right in Riverhead: the Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Caregivers Center. Their office is just off the PBMC main lobby, and the help they provide, available daily, is within reach just by walking in.

Using the model of caregiver support that operates at the Hamilton Caregivers Center at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., the center at PBMC answers the question that all dismayed caregivers ask themselves at one time or another: am I at all prepared for elderly care? The PBMC Caregivers Center’s answer to this question is essentially the same for everyone: you will be if you care for yourself as well, and when you touch base with us.

Start with their excellent support groups. With no obligation, their general caregiver support group is available to all starting at their PBMC location at noon till 1 p.m. this Jan. 3, and for the following first Thursday of each month till August.

For caregivers of those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s, a special support group starts Jan. 16, from noon till 1:30, and the following third Wednesdays, also for the next seven months.

Call PBMC’s Caregiver Center to register for either group at (631) 548-6259.

There is a way to be a caregiver without the demoralizing sense of being stuck forever in an agonizing situation. There is a way as well to cope and even avoid the sense of loneliness and anxiety that goes with this arduous journey. Caregivers are known also to suffer insomnia and depression. But there can be times to get away, as there should be. The exhaustive planning that goes into get-away times can be worked out, and worked out well.

The more complicated and, at times, exhaustive part of planning for caregiving involves finances. But sound advice on the best options can make a huge difference. This aspect is also overwhelming, at first.

Medicare covers only a few specialized nursing services. Long-term care insurance is costly and few people have it. Those who do find it covers far less than expected. Most elderly suffer from poor financial planning, and are left with little more than social security and perhaps some equity in their homes. And the alternative to home-care also hits finances hard: Genworth Financial sets the median cost at $100,000 a year for a private room at a nursing home, while a 24/7 home health care aide on L.I. will cost at least $80,000 annually.

And then there is the length of time involved in a caregiver’s commitment. Some will find themselves in a caregiving role for years, even decades, regarding themselves as sinking into a struggle that never ends. It does not have to be that way.

In addition to Riverhead’s PBMC Caregivers Center, definitely access the website of AARP’s Care Guides (/caregiving/care-guides/), as well as Amy Goyer.com, the author of an immeasurably invaluable guide entitled, “Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.” She is not only an expert on caregiving, with 35 years in the field of aging, and a champion of family caregivers, but also lives the seemingly overwhelming caregiver’s life for her own elderly parents. Ms. Hoyer irons out many of the complexities that bring bewildering situations of all kinds into a rational, manageable perspective, a must read for any caregiver today.

Guidance, support groups, resource material, sound advice, a beacon for hope – these resources for caregivers up until recently were nowhere to be found. Now the loneliness and forlorn outlook have become outdated. Caregivers at long last have a network, online as well as at our local hospital. As a caregiver for a loved one who depends on you everyday, you are certainly not alone.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg