The title is not an error. There were 43.5 million caregivers helping friends and relatives in 2015. That number has only increased since. The economic value of family caregivers is huge – $470 billion. Yes, that is BILLIONS. Despite this economic might, family caregivers are nearly invisible.
That teenager with a mop of hair and a full grocery cart is shopping for her entire family because her mother is disabled. That tall gentleman loading some wood planks into a pickup truck is actually fixing his parents’ deck after a bad storm. That stylishly dressed young woman picking up prescriptions is on an errand for her grandparents. Would you know they were caregivers?
Caregivers do not have photo shoots, walk red carpets, cause scandals or cover front pages on a regular basis. Caregivers just get on with it day after day, month after month.
Who Are Caregivers?
You can be one and not know it. How would you know? Take this tiny quiz.
- Do you do small tasks for your parents, relatives of any age or friends that they can’t do – install a small window air conditioner, assemble some furniture or take their car out for an oil change?
- Do you help on a nearly regular schedule – pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy each month, balance their checkbook every few months or mow their lawn once a week?
- Is your calendar/To Do list peppered with items for your parents, close friends or other relatives?
- Do you accompany them to appointments with their doctors, lawyers, accountants and therapists?
If you answered yes to any of the four questions above, then you’re a caregiver. Your official membership card will be arriving in the mail.
What Do Family Caregivers Do?
When we hear the word “caregiver”, our mind imagines someone in uniform pushing a wheelchair, changing a bed or helping someone dress. That’s somewhat misleading. It’s not always about personal physical aid. Uniforms are optional.
A caregiver can:
- Be a driver to appointments, shopping or visiting friends.
- Deliver some delicious food every weekend.
- Do the weekly laundry and cleaning.
- Direct home care aids who visit each week.
- Be a healthcare proxy for a relative, friend or neighbor and that’s all.
- Pay all the bills and make all the household decisions on a loved one’s behalf.
A caregiver helps in different degrees. It’s a wide range starting at driving to the grocery store every two weeks up to living with aged parents full-time. Some loved ones will need or ask for more help than others. A caregiver has an escalating schedule of responsibilities the longer they’re caregiving.
Obstacle Meet Caregiver: ZAP!
The amount of care given rises and falls along with the loved one’s health. Some weeks are good as there’s an established routine and nothing disrupts it. Everyone has time to do the things they must do plus things they want to do.
Then comes a bad patch of a few days. Your charge falls or their health takes an unexpected downturn. Routine is the first thing thrown out the window. The second thing is your own interests and time as your focus turns solely towards your loved one. You’re at the hospital in the mornings, doing errands in the afternoon and trying to rest at home in the evenings.
Caregiving is an endurance marathon run on a steeplechase course with you as the sole runner. Each day you start a new obstacle course. You choose which obstacles to avoid, skirt around or tackle head on.
Your reward at the end of the day – knowing you made it through another day. You get some satisfaction when things went well or better than the day before. Tangible rewards are few. Most family caregivers are unpaid. They squeeze caregiving in between jobs and their own busy family lives.
Pay for family caregivers is a political topic whose profile is rising and becoming more vocal. Perhaps, some day caregivers will be compensated in part or in full for the time and service they give to their family members. Being able to live rent free and have a car in exchange for the responsibility of day to day care may be the most financial reward a caregiver can receive right now.
The intangible rewards are few but they can mean more in the long term.
- Caregiving is revealing. You see your charge in every mood and situation. They may be your mother or father but when you’re the caregiver you see them as individuals. They had lives, dreams and ideas long before you came into their lives.
- Caregiving can be a confidence booster. Few things in life challenges a person in every way as much as caregiving does. If you can manage a day spent at the hospital, the pharmacy, the store and then picking up your kids from school, future crazy days are far less maddening. You know you’ll get through it.
- Caregiving grants wisdom. You will make many mistakes and you will learn from them. You will be forced to learn new things to do and your skills will grow. You will realize that there’s more than one way of thinking and grow as a person.
Caregivers Learn to Adapt
Whatever the situation, a family caregiver adapts. Over time, it becomes an unconscious method. Something happens, you adjust. You don’t think about having to adjust. No jotting down changes to your To Do list or caregiver notes. You simply find yourself going on automatic.
Instead of preparing the lunch you had planned, you reach for soup and some rolls because you know that after a hospital stay, your loved one will need soft foods for a day or two. You change routine and decide to do the grocery run the next morning instead of later in the day. Why? Because you know your mother will be sleeping most of the morning still fatigued from her recent illness.
Is being a caregiver easy? No. It’s a job like any other. It requires time, energy, patience, commitment and a sense of humor to see the good and the bad.
One thing family caregiving is not – boring. You will be stretched psychologically, mentally and socially. You will be forced out of your comfort zone time and again.
You will not be the same person you were before. Personal growth and wisdom are the good consequences of the experience. You decide what that’s worth to you.