Blessed are the caregivers

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.

34 million

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.

Unsung heroes

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.

13 responses

  1. Thank you for this post. Caregivers are indeed unsung heroes.


  2. Blessed are those that recognize how much caregivers give of themselves. Few people can even begin to relate to how much caregivers unselfishly give up in order to love and keep a loved one at home. I’ve been a caregiver for 33 years (for my daughter) and would not have it any other way. My whole life turned upside down at a very young age but I will tell you that without this experience I would not be half the person I am today. It’s difficult for me to put into words but I will try. Marie has “supreme” qualities that I more than likely will never attain but just having the honor of being around her has changed me. She makes me a much better person and reminds me everyday what it is to unconditionally love someone, although she does the supreme love thing much better than I do, lol. Sometimes not having an easy life has it’s rewards. I live with a grateful, sweet, loving and one of the funniest people on this planet. It’s just the 2 of us and we are an odd couple but we are happy. Sadly 90% of marriages fall apart after the birth of a disabled child and for the most part second marriage don’t even have a chance in hell of making it. I’ve often wondered if hospitals gave marriage classes that prepared these young couples with some much needed skills if that might not save a few marriages. I personally think it would be a huge help. Hummm David, now you have me thinking……………

  3. Thank You!! for that article on “Blessed are the Caregivers.”

    Some of as employees might complain about work conditions, bullying, etc, but it is true these caregivers make all those complaints look less minor.

    (even though these are still important and need to be changed).

    But we need to do a shout out for all those selfless caregivers!!

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Thank you for recognizing the value of family caregivers and for alerting readers to the deepening issues related to elder care in the United States. I enjoy your articles.
    Caring for an older family member can be a rich and rewarding experience. It can also strain other family relationships – even to the point that the person being cared for is neglected. At a time when family teamwork is most needed, different perceptions, poor communication, and unresolved issues from the past pull at the fabric of a coordinated approach.
    I recognize this fracture of family relationships as a major problem – especially when it occurs at a time of crisis. Part of my professional work is facilitating family meetings about elder care. I serve in the role of a neutral, optimizing the climate and process for discussion. The benefit for most families is better decision-making – more durable, informed agreements; savings in time and money; and an improved spirit of cooperation.
    Professionals in the field of conflict resolution are increasingly connecting with families who need help discussing aging issues. They are a valuable resource that can be found in most major cities and suburban areas under the heading, “elder mediation”. Their facilitation and coaching skills can transform adversarial family dynamics into a problem-solving approach and re-focus attention where it should be – on the welfare of the older person.

    Jeannette Twomey, JD
    Mediator, Faciltator, & Conflict Coach

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