Several months ago, after settling into my seat for a plane flight, I looked up the aisle and noticed a physically slight older woman lugging along a large man, and he was basically leaning on her back as they moved forward. She led him to their seats and attended to his seatbelt. Later, when he had to use the restroom, she helped him to get up, and once again he leaned on her back as they made their way to the front of the plane.
The man appeared to be severely developmentally disabled, and she was his caregiver, probably his mom. In her eyes I saw what I can only describe as a tired yet peaceful sense of devotion and acceptance.
It so happened that I was traveling that day to visit a dear friend who is caring for her father who has Alzheimer’s. Because of her selflessness, this good man is living comfortably at home, enjoying his favorite meals, watching football games, and having someone tuck him into bed every night with a hug.
Every day and night, millions of people around the world are rendering emotionally and physically demanding labor without pay, serving as caregivers to loved ones with illnesses or disabilities. It is hard work that tugs at the heartstrings. Oftentimes it is a manifestation of pure love and commitment.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 34 million people are serving as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. Here are a few key facts and figures:
- “An estimated 21% of households in the United States are impacted by caregiving responsibilities (NAC, 2004).”
- “Unpaid caregivers provide an estimated 90% of the long-term care (IOM, 2008).”
- “Caregivers report having difficulty finding time for one’s self (35%), managing emotional and physical stress (29%), and balancing work and family responsibilities (29%) (NAC, 2004).”
- “About 73% of surveyed caregivers said praying helps them cope with caregiving stress, 61% said that they talk with or seek advice from friends or relatives, and 44% read about caregiving in books or other materials (NAC, 2004).”
Furthermore, caregiving is a very gendered role, with women bearing the heaviest proportion of these responsibilities. Often they are doing so while sacrificing opportunities to pursue careers and engage in income-producing work.
A preview of the future
As I read about the challenges we face with an aging population, among the emerging points of clarity is that our ability to keep people alive has far outstripped our current resources and systems to provide affordable, dignified long-term care to those who need it, especially without exhausting their caregivers.
This reality dovetails with projections of sharply increasing numbers of people needing such help, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other disabling conditions.
We must reorient our priorities if we are to avoid the specter of an aging population withering away in terrible living conditions and lacking dignified care, with burned out caregivers trying to fill the many voids. This will include controlling the costs of respite and long-term care, while at the same time offering living wages to health care attendants and providing financial support for those who take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities.
In an era of limited financial resources for the vast majority of the population, this will not be easy. It will require, among other things, that we rethink what is important in our lives and for our society.
Anyway, the main purpose of this piece is not to engage in a public policy discussion, as necessary as it happens to be. Rather, it is to recognize that caregivers are among the unsung heroes of our everyday lives. They are doing work of a higher order, and they deserve our praise, thanks, and support.