How Much Can You Lift…Spiritually?

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Family caregivers have endured many hardships over the past year as we have struggled through a pandemic combined with a brutal national election cycle and, depending on where you live, numerous unprecedented weather-related disasters as well. If you care for an older family member, likely you felt forced to isolate yourself and your loved one socially to prevent possible exposure to COVID-19. Without even the normal social interactions found by going to the grocery store, out to eat or the beauty salon, we suffered in loneliness. Even churches were limited to developing or expanding their online presence or holding parking lot services while congregants remained in their cars. Online worship can be very moving and meaningful, it cannot ever truly replace the strength, nurture and encouragement we experience when we come together as a family of believers. As we talk about a family caregiver’s fitness needs, we must acknowledge that their spiritual support is perhaps more crucial than any other fitness consideration.

Scripture teaches us of the strength and substance found in prayer, scripture study, worship, and Christian fellowship throughout the New Testament. Jesus modeled all these disciplines throughout his brief ministry and steeped His disciples in the importance of constant connection and relationship with our Creator God. As we pray and study scripture, we gain enlightenment and encouragement for the challenges we face each day; through worship we reflect our gratitude to our Lord and Savior who never changes and never gives up on us. Through Christian fellowship we find empathy, strength, courage, and resources to help us when we feel like giving up. Each one of these facets of our spiritual health is beneficial to the caregiving challenges you encounter day after day, but taken all together and practiced regularly, they equip you fully to overcome every obstacle and embody God’s blessings in their truest sense.

Perhaps COVID lulled you into a sense that virtual worship and Bible study is enough. Frankly, it had to suffice while everything was shut down, but don’t be fooled. When it is safe and allowed, get back to in-person worship and fellowship with other believers. Some days you might feel like there’s simply no time for Bible study or prayer time, but with discipline you will discover that those are the days when these practices are the most important features in your day.

Gaining or regaining spiritual fitness might be challenging at first, but I promise you that it will equip you as a family caregiver in ways you never thought possible!

Betsy and I hope you will join the conversation this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about growing spiritually stronger.

The Value of Social Connections

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Over the last year of social isolation and distancing we have learned many things about the damage done by breaking the bonds of social interactions. The pandemic’s forced social distancing, paired with increased vulnerability to infection for certain age groups and those with certain health conditions, led to serious mental decline, increased depression and growth in substance abuse. Overall, those most impacted by social isolation clearly demonstrated the many dangers associated with this lonely lifestyle.

God made us to live in relationships, first with our Maker, and then with each other. We read in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone…” so God created a “helper” for Adam when He made Eve. While Adam was in fellowship with God from his first breath, his human nature needed to be in relationship with another human. Social relationships enhance our quality of life on many levels and also encourage us to grow toward becoming our best selves. Family caregivers frequently find themselves living very isolated lives. Social connectedness can strengthen and support the health and welfare of family caregivers and those they care for alike.

Relationships can be nurtured effectively by using modern technology, which can adequately bridge physical separation by fostering a sense of social connectedness. Social health can be strengthened through remote technology connections like phone calls or video chats, emails, and text messages, or through more traditional vehicles like note cards and letters, but nothing takes the place of in-person conversations. Using a variety of means to overcome physical separation can enhance one’s health on many levels.

Family caregivers frequently battle isolation and loneliness. Negative health impacts include depression, substance abuse and addictions, poor nutritional habits, forgetfulness, sleep disruption, and increased diagnoses of chronic diseases. Satisfying the need to feel connected through interactions with family members, friends, church fellowship and support groups can significantly improve overall health, yielding such benefits as increased brain function, better nutrition and self-care, and improved caregiving stamina and ability.

Chris and I hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about strengthening your social connections.

Keeping a Healthy Mind

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Our mental state impacts our lives in every way. How we feel physically, socially, spiritually and otherwise depends largely on how healthy our minds are. Our mental wellbeing has a huge impact on our ability to care for others, but actually discussing one’s mental health is a tricky topic of conversation these days. Family caregivers are particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress in general. All of these negative emotions can have adverse effects on the whole of your wellbeing, robbing you of rest and wrecking your immune system.

While there are many different contexts in which we find references to mental health within society today, for our purposes your mental health is what gives you the ability to think clearly, plan effectively, and manage schedules as a family caregiver. These are all critical skills to the responsibility of caregiving and require an agile mind to properly balance each area of caregiving. Thinking clearly helps you to assess the many different components involved in caring for an aging family member. Effective planning takes that assessment and organizes each piece so every day runs smoothly and everything gets accomplished. Schedule management reinforces and expands thinking and planning, but it also allows for necessary adjustments and builds flexibility into your success formula.

How well is your mind working these days? Do you feel clear and focused, or are you foggy and forgetful? The mind’s ability to function well is impacted by many factors. Sleep, nutrition, quiet moments in your day, and physical exercise all contribute to a healthy mind. Daily Bible study and prayer also give you grounding and centering that helps align your thoughts and plans. If you are missing the mark on any one of these, your mind’s ability to operate effectively can be negatively impacted; if you are short on two or more, you might find yourself experiencing lapses in memory, depression, anxiety, and mood swings. These can all damage your capacity to care and put those you care for at risk. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you succeed at caring for others?

Small changes in your lifestyle can make huge improvements in your mental health. Just choose one of the areas above and decide to do one thing every day to make improvements. For sleep, try going to bed at the same time every day. For nutrition, try increasing fruits and veggies in your diet, or simply drink more water in your day. If exercise is your target, start with a short walk every day. Take time out every day to breathe. Choose an online Bible study to follow or get up 15 minutes earlier and begin your day with prayer. All of these actions are small, but just begin with one. After a week or two, add another. Before you know it, you will be feeling like a new caregiver!

Betsy and I hope you will join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about how you keep your mental ability healthy.

Be Fit to be a Caregiver

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First, the disclaimer. I’m not a doctor, a nutritionist, or an exercise physiologist. I’m not a personal trainer, and my only expertise in sharing what I do today is born of personal experience. I do believe in Newton’s Law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest. And that’s not a good way to live (at rest, that is) if we want to be productive and change the world for ourselves or someone that we love and care for, right? So, here goes…

The experts tell us we are nothing without our health, but what does that really mean? I know lots of people who struggle with chronic health conditions, but they manage to live satisfying, productive lives and are active in both their church and community. But here’s the thing: in order to live any life of quality, we all must do certain things regularly to keep our bodies in good working shape.

Family caregivers have many challenges in their role of giving care to others. As the years pass by, time takes its toll on us physically and in many other ways as well. In order to be fully equipped to care for aging family members, we must keep ourselves as strong and fit as possible. Over the next several weeks we’ll discuss how to improve our fitness physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Don’t be intimidated by this opportunity…be honest with yourself about where you are now and think about where you’d like to be by this time next year. It’s all in your hands!

First, let’s consider your physical health. This takes in many factors, and the first one is how often you see your doctor. We should all have a check-up at least once a year to monitor basic indicators like weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and other factors. These numbers are like the dashboard lights on your car; when something lights up, your doctor can know what service is needed.

Next, how active is your lifestyle? A couple of years ago I had a health issue that sent me to the hospital for a brief stay. I had embarked on a personal fitness journey 8 months earlier (after checking in with my doctor to make sure I could do this safely, because it’s always good to do this first) that resulted in my losing nearly 50 lbs. and greatly increasing my energy level and strength. By doing some kind of sweaty exercise at least 30 minutes every day and eating healthy 80% of the time, I made great progress toward my physical fitness goals, and my doctor was thrilled with this.

I didn’t start out this practice at full throttle. In fact, every day in the beginning I had to pray for the energy to get started. I dreaded every workout, but I went anyway. I started by walking on a treadmill every day at the gym. It was winter, so outdoor walks weren’t really an option. Over time I increased my speed and incline, and even started to run a little. Next, I moved to the elliptical machine. At first, I could only do ten minutes on this monster, but after a while I could do thirty minutes or more, and what a great workout! I also incorporated yoga, swimming, biking, weights, and racquetball into my workouts as my strength and stamina improved. As the weather warmed, outdoor walks and bike rides were invigorating. (Racquetball was my favorite, but in my late 50’s my arthritic knees don’t really like this sport anymore.)

This lifestyle became my fitness motto, and even when I was hospitalized, I asked Chris to bring my yoga mat so I could at least do stretches. The improvement to my health alone was worth the effort, but every other aspect of my life also benefitted from this change in my daily routine.

Another important element of my journey was my cheerleader, Chris. My husband was a constant encouragement to me, offering love and support along the way. He even got inspired to make some changes to his routines, and today he works out harder than I do. Having an accountability partner is most helpful when you undertake any lifestyle change. Shifting routines that have been built over many decades takes dedication, focus, and courage, but the benefits far outweigh the initial discomforts. 

Wherever you are in your caregiver journey, Chris and I invite you to join us on a walk over the next few weeks to achieve improved fitness levels in all these areas of your life. You may find you are a better family caregiver because of it. 

We also hope you’ll join us in the comments below and share your heart about fitness in general.

What Role does Church have in Caregiving?

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Did you know that the church has a role to play in caregiving? In fact, a healthy church could reasonably expect to touch caregiving on several different levels.

Betsy and I grew up in different denominations; she was Southern Baptist, and I was Methodist. Both of us saw how the church ministered to its aging members and their families through illnesses, loss of mobility, chronic diseases and death. To be a part of a church body has always meant being a member of a family unrelated by blood but bound together by a common faith and a belief system that calls us to care for one another even as we would want to be cared for. 

Many of today’s churches have an abundance of members who need care or assistance. Over time these seniors move to the “homebound” ministry and largely vanish from active fellowship. When people who were once vital to leadership or support roles throughout the congregation become limited by physical challenges, losses are felt on both sides. The church that doesn’t find a way to reach out and engage its homebound members loses opportunities to benefit from wisdom and experience. The homebound members lose fellowship and an important sense of connectedness that keeps them feeling loved and supported.

Homebound ministry programs can bridge the gap, plugging younger members in to build relationships with older members who can no longer get out and go to church. Too often, however, this type of caregiving isn’t recognized by most of the members who come to worship, study scripture, and otherwise make the church the center of their lives. It is largely an invisible ministry program because, unlike music, children’s ministry, singles, and missions, it never gets placed in front of the church members and highlighted. Most churches don’t do a good job of sharing the testimony of their homebound members who have benefitted from visits, fruit baskets, meals, and the like. Likewise, few churches offer support groups for family caregivers. Senior adult ministry programs might address some of these important needs, but more emphasis is needed to make members aware of the opportunities that are literally all around them. 

The church’s primary mission, as it has always been, is to make disciples for Christ. Next, it must nurture and care for those disciples and equip them to evangelize their own corner of the world. Aging seniors and their family caregivers need this nurture and care as well as the equipping. If they cannot still attend church, then the church must attend to them. Family caregivers need to know that their loved ones are not forgotten by their church families, and that their own church fellowship has not forgotten the caregiver as well.

Betsy and I hope you will join us this week at Heart of the Caregiver dot com and share your heart about how you see the role of your church in caregiving.

Faith and Family

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Easter came early this year, but not a moment too soon for me! As a Christian, this is the highest and most holy day we can observe in our faith walk. Reflection is not only appropriate but also necessary to properly embrace the full weight of what Christ did to save you and me from our sins. The gift of eternal life made possible by those events surpasses anything that came before or has happened since.

When families share a common faith in Christ, their burden is made lighter, at least to some degree, by their mutual beliefs. Promises in scripture range from God’s never-ending faithfulness (Psalm 26:3, Genesis 24:27, Psalm 86:11, 15), his unchanging promises to hear and answer our prayers (Genesis 25:21, 1Kings 8:45), provide for our every need (Genesis 22:8, Romans 5:17), and will go with us when we cannot make on our own (Psalm 23:4) are only a part of the comfort verses that bring encouragement. Jesus also gave us the Holy Spirit, who intercedes unceasingly on our behalf (John 14:26), and the New Testament epistles are filled with exhortations to the faith community to care for each other. Next week we will talk more about the role the Church plays in caregiving, but the fellowship you share not only with your family members but also others in your church family help to ease the challenges you face, and trials of caregiving are made easier by the strength and courage your faith provides.

Family caregivers with faith in Christ have access to the throne of God Almighty by exercising our faith through prayer and supplication. The Holy Spirit and ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1-3) will intercede on our behalf before our Father in Heaven, and He will provide whatever is needed, because we are loved, cherished, and redeemed. We are children of the King of Kings, and he will not allow us to be overcome by the world and its trials. Hold fast to the hope you profess, for He who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:23) 

Chris and I hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about how a shared faith strengthens your family.

When Caregiving Costs Your Career

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A family caregiver gives up many things to provide full-time care to aging family members. We’ve already discussed how caregiving can impact your marriage and your parenting effectiveness, but what about your career? Whether you are climbing a corporate ladder somewhere or working in an hourly capacity, finding the time to be a full-time caregiver can seriously hurt your ability to keep your balance between your workplace and your care responsibilities!

When aging parents or relatives need help, the career path of their adult child may be significantly altered if they are needed to provide assistance, either temporarily or for an extended period of time. Most employers can withstand a few days of unplanned leave when their employee has a family emergency, but few expect this absence to go on for weeks or even months. The COVID-19 pandemic with its ever-changing workplace accomodations showed us that employees can be out of work for extended periods of time for many different reasons, but even the most patient of employers will eventually have to refill vacated positions. Whether you write contracts, manage schedules, teach in a classroom or empty trashcans, your job is important and when you aren’t there someone else has to backfill your responsibilities or workflow stops and our economy suffers. Imagine if, because you had to stop working to help out your aging mom or dad, your company failed and hundreds, maybe thousands of people were laid off…the cascading effect is remarkable! 

Even if you only work for fun, or because you find meaning in what you do, it might be difficult to step away from something you love doing in order to become a family caregiver. Many people find their identity in the work they do, and there’s nothing wrong with this as long as you keep your job in perspective. Work should never come before God, and never come before family, spouse, and relationships. At best it should probably be 4th or 5th in your priorities. But if you find your identity in your work, you might lose yourself if you step away to become a full-time caregiver. Your new role gets little appreciation or recognition. There is probably nobody around to tell you what a great job you did changing that bed, or what an amazing meal you cooked. You won’t get awards for making sure your dad took all of his pills last week, and your mom won’t bonus you for helping her get to the bathroom before she had an accident. It is a largely thankless job you are choosing over one that really felt great every single day, but with the right motivation you can find that endorphin rush in caregiving as well.

In either of these scenarios you will have better success if you start planning for possibilities before you even need to worry about it. Nobody has a crystal ball that will show us the future of care needs, but with keen observation and wisdom born of age we can come closer to seeing the writing on the wall and prepare ourselves to be able to meet the challenge when needs arise. Whatever your work situation might be, if you plan for change before you transition to being a family caregiver the results will be beneficial for you, your workplace, and your aging loved ones. Talk to your employer, or your direct supervisor, as situations change with your parents and you begin to see warning signs of care needs ahead. Scope out resources local to your aging family members and start some conversations to get initial details nailed down early. One of the biggest mistakes Betsy and I see families make is delaying their groundwork in meeting possible helpers early on, well before care is needed. If you go ahead and meet local care resources (hospice, home health, home care, retirement communities, and rehab options) beforehand, the choice will be easier when you need help. Also, outside resources can be the difference between giving up your job and flourishing in it. 

With the right preparation, you can look like a rockstar whether you are building your career, being a full-time caregiver, or becoming a hybrid of both.

Betsy and I hope you will join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about how to balance caregiving with your career.

Between the Generations: When Caregiving Costs Your Kids

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Being a family caregiver requires lots of time and focus given to your older family members who require care, and if you have your own children as well you might feel squeezed at times between needs on both generations. None of us wants to lose any of our family relationships when we become family caregivers, but the risk is very real.

In the best scenarios, when we become family caregivers our kids are grown, and we have an empty nest at home, leaving us with plenty of free time to care for older family members. That’s pretty much what I experienced when my mother began to need more of my focus and attention. While I still had responsibilities to my husband and at work, I had enough freedom to make frequent visits to Georgia where my mom lived. It was helpful to see her more often, and I could recognize signs of decline that my brother didn’t realize when he saw her nearly every day.

Unfortunately, having an empty nest isn’t reality for most family caregivers. The “sandwich generation” is aptly named. Whether your children are in kindergarten or in high school, they still need time with their parents, and if mom or dad are also managing care for other family members, they can find themselves stretched to unmanageable lengths. Younger children need closer supervision and direction, while tweens and teens have wholly different needs for the presence and attention of parents in their lives. Your kids may feel resentment, frustration, loneliness and even anger if you are absent from important events in their lives because Lolly or Pop had a doctor’s appointment or was in the hospital. School performances, classroom presentations, field trips and the like are all special opportunities for you to support your child, learn more about his or her interests, and demonstrate their importance to you. When such events occur, put your backup plan in place and have someone else provide care for a period of time so you can be away with your child.

When your children are young it’s also your responsibility to nurture the relationship between your child and the older family members you care for. Plan time spent all together and let your child help provide care if this is possible and appropriate. Organize a story-telling session where your mom or dad tells a story from his or her childhood and your child relates one of their own. Highlight the similarities and watch a relationship begin to blossom!

Family caregivers with older, grown children are often still needed for advice, wisdom, friendship or even babysitting for grandchildren on occasion, leaving constraints on your ability to give care to others. These are special opportunities to deepen your relationships while also encouraging your grown children and demonstrating your constant support and love for them. While they probably don’t need help with homework anymore, it’s nice when you can take some time to hear about your daughter’s weekend away with friends, or your son’s job offers. While these conversations are usually spontaneous, it’s important to be able to value and honor the time they require, and this time is an investment you can never get back if it is lost. When the call comes, carefully evaluate whether you can step away from caregiving for a little while and give your focus to your child. If you cannot, explain your situation and schedule another time to talk when you will be free. If the event is larger, like a wedding or the birth of a grandchild, move heaven and earth to activate your backup plan and show up for your child. The backup plan is invaluable to your ability to manage being everywhere you need to be, but with thoughtful planning you can win at both parenting and caregiving. 

Chris and I hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about healthy parenting as a family caregiver.

When Caregiving Costs Your Marriage

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When we talk about the cost of being a family caregiver, we have to consider what this responsibility does to your marriage. Whether you’ve been married only a few months or many decades, caring for aging family members definitely takes its toll. Whether your loved one lives close by or far away, providing hands-on care takes time and effort, and might even mean spending nights, days, or even weeks away from your life partner. 

When Betsy’s mother was in her last years of life, she was faced with the need to do her part to help her brother with their mom’s care as well as finding ways to spend quality time with her mom. This was a challenge, since Sarah lived nearly 500 miles away. But, for the last 2 years or so of Sarah’s life, Betsy made the commitment to spend most of a week with her each month. Driving took about 8 hours each way. Flying became the preferred way to go, because Betsy could leave our house at about 5 am, fly to Atlanta, pick up a rental car and be at her mother’s house by 10:30 am. Return trip days meant getting in on the last flight, which landed at our local airport sometime after 11:00 pm. If the plane was on time, that is. Betsy’s schedule meant that I was not only the taxi driver to and from the airport, but also meant that I was left home alone, with the business that we run together, the dog, and the empty house.  When Sarah fell and broke her hip, the time between that event and her death required longer stays away for Betsy, and longer absences between us.  

During these times, I missed my wife a lot! We have been married over 30 years, and she is also my best friend and my business partner. Her absence left a hole in my life until she got back. During these times she also needed my support. She was stressed with the travel, with the knowledge that time with her mother was short, and she was worried that she needed to do even more than she was already doing. She was concerned for our business. She was concerned for her brother, who would be left with the entire load when she came back home. She also felt the loneliness and separation from me, as much or more than I did, but when she got home, she was often exhausted and overwhelmed with it all. 

If you are caring for a loved one, the physical and mental fatigue of being a caregiver can leave you with nothing left to give to your spouse. If you don’t prepare for this in partnership with your spouse, you might find that it builds frustration, resentment, and a whole host of negative emotions that can fracture the foundation of your marriage. We were able to minimize the strain by following a few rules. 
First, COMMUNICATE! Much earlier in our marriage, when I was a sales rep and often on the road overnight, we made a commitment to talk to each other on the phone every day when I was away. Often, I would stay in my room and order room service and call home over dinner so we could eat together. We have kept this practice up, so that we talk every day, and I mean really talk, whenever one of us has to be away. And, when we are talking, both sides have to commit to sharing honest feelings AND listening to the other. Marriage is a partnership, and that “better or worse” part of the vows we made is crucial. We are supposed to be able to share each other’s successes and bear one another’s burdens. 

The second thing is to REST. Betsy would come home during those days, and the next day needed to be almost a free day for her to reset for being home for a stretch. If you are caring for someone locally, make the time to take a day off and rest. Engage other family or even consider hiring some help for your loved one so that you can get the rest you need. Caregiving is exhausting; don’t let it overwhelm you. And make certain that your spouse knows how critical this time is for you.

Finally, plan special time with your spouse that doesn’t involve caring for anyone else. Betsy and I would plan dinners out, movies, and romantic evenings at home. Whatever you do, if it is scheduled, you can plan for it and enjoy the excitement of anticipating that time. A date night a week is ideal, but at least one every month is pretty much a necessity! And when you plan something, make it an absolute commitment. Don’t let anything other than a genuine emergency alter your plan. 

As is the case in so many things, maintaining balance is the key to success. Also, keeping the perspective that while the stresses of caregiving are real, in most cases they are also only for a season. Remember that seasons come and go, but your marriage is a partnership that is meant to endure all seasons. Nurture it and prioritize it and you can flourish in the midst of the struggles. 

Betsy and I hope you will join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about finding time to nurture your marriage will being a family caregiver.

Can Medicare Help?

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A question frequently asked by family caregivers is this: does Medicare pay for home care services? A common misconception is that, once an individual turns 65, they are automatically covered by Medicare and ALL their medical needs are paid for through one of their Medicare plans. This is not true in most cases, but each individual’s needs must be weighed separately in order to determine whether benefits are available.

The Medicare program was originally created in 1965 to assist individuals 65 and older with hospital costs and basic medical care. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the program was originally created to provide good medical insurance for the elderly population 65 and older who could not find good insurance once they had retired. 

Over the years Congress has expanded Medicare to include coverage for disabled individuals under the age of 65, those with end-stage renal disease, and those 65 and older who select Medicare. Today the program also covers some aspects of home care when home is used as an alternative to a rehab facility. When personal care services are needed at home in conjuction with rehabilitation or recovery, Medicare may be an option.

Think of it this way: Medicare services cover the 3 R’s: recuperation, rehabilitation, or restoration. Medicare is usually a short-term intervention step, paying for services like a hospitalization after a fall or prescribed rehabilitative visits to prevent the fall in the first place. 

It’s a complicated issue, and not easily understood by many. Chris and I won’t try to explain all the ins and outs of Medicare here, but it is important to understand that Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Part B (Medical Insurance) cover some eligible home care services under certain circumstances. The need for help must be intermittent or occasional, and services are usually coordinated by a home care agency working with under a doctor’s orders. If your loved one needs care most or all of the time, Medicare is not the solution you seek. For more details on covered services and those that are excluded, visit www.medicare.gov

Chris and I hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about how Medicare can be of benefit to your aging family members.