It has been labeled an unseen health crisis and hidden failure in the workplace. According to AARP, an estimated 34.2 million American adults have served as an unpaid caregiver with responsibilities ranging from attending to dressing and bathing to interacting with providers and assisting with nursing tasks; without any prior training to do so. Most plunge into caregiving not-so-simply because it is the necessary and right and loving thing to do.
The scenario is playing out in a myriad of households for a myriad of health issues, from Alzheimer’s to cancer to care of wounded warriors. The Broduers’ situation paints a picture of the toll being exacted on “caregiving” parents. After 19 months in a coma, 43 operations and countless hours of rehabilitation, their war-injured veteran son came home. “He can’t be left alone and can barely read or write,” the father stated in an interview with journalist Mary W. Quinley. Then, another battle began for the proximity of follow-on care and funding to adapt their home for his care.
They can’t be away long or take time off, they struggle financially, and many don’t take time for their own health care, hobbies, or social life. Depression is taking hold in the lives of 40 to 70 percent of caregivers, in particular those caring for someone with dementia. Research by the Family Caregiver Alliance indicates caregivers suffer from increased rates of physical ailments, obesity, serious illness, heart disease, and cancer. The health concerns have caught the attention of the American Heart Association who now offers a free support network, specifically for caregivers.
Rob Harris, a human resources manager, has advocated for greater support in the workplace (such as redesigned EAPs – Employee Assistance Programs – as well as empathy training). He is well aware that as families and as a society, “we’re in this together” — he’s lived through a marathon of his wife’s double battle with cancer. During our years of doing a radio show with Rob, he shared some 70 caregiver tips to help caregivers adapt and survive such arduous journeys. Hearing the word cancer can strike terror in one’s heart. Rob Harris opened his heart, and his life, as he confronted it and healed alongside his wife (that heartwarming story is available on Amazon). Thank you Rob, for your continuing indelible mark upon so many lives.
The unseen health crises and hidden workplace failures are at the core reason 63 percent of caregivers have a greater chance of death within four years, as compared to non-caregivers. The American Psychological Association reported, “an increased tendency to develop serious illness, and high levels of obesity and bodily pain, ultimately leading to a diminished immune response.”
We seriously need a caregiver revival. Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, has begun such a “revival” with its Caregiver Boot Camp program. The initiative will provide education, empowerment, and support to unpaid family caregivers of elders (with symptoms of dementia). The Alzheimer’s Music Fest is another example of caregiver revival. Together with Caring Together in Hope and the Laona M. Kitchen Foundation, the Atlanta-area festival (held annually) provides the gift of respite through music and comedy — a wonderful healing combination.
The health and well-being and fortitude of caregivers is clearly dependent on our recognition — and support — of the magnitude of their journey. For adult and child caregivers alike, not one area of their lives goes untouched. The impact has ripple effects on their physical, mental, social, financial, and spiritual well-being. That’s five distinct areas of families’ lives affected for days, months, and oftentimes, years.
I can’t change the world of caregiving but I can change my corner of the world by exercising compassion:
- immersing caregivers and loved ones in the arts (memory cafes)
- caring for the caregiver dinner workshops
- partnering to improve the way care is delivered (Eden Alternatives in Care)
- praying for my family and other families wearing “caregiver” shoes
- advocating for better and greater support for unpaid caregivers
Five vital reasons are inherently built into every caregivers’ physical, mental, social, financial, and spiritual sense of well-being. One seed at a time, it is time for a caregiver revival and it begins with you and me.