You’re seated with your frail mother in a jet at about 28,000 feet, row 15. You had volunteered to fly out to meet her and fly her back to your home, and you just took off moments ago. Mom had been unable to use her right side to any good effect for some time, and you are bringing her to your home so you can better care for her. You haven’t made specific plans yet, but you’re certain it will be a good move for her and for your family at home. The plane suddenly lurches downward. The air masks drop from the ceiling. What do you do?
If you had paid attention to the in-flight talk as you got settled before taking off you would know that you are to secure your own face mask first, and then help someone with you if they require any assistance. Anyone who has traveled with any regularity has probably heard this so many times that they could probably recite the pitch themselves. But who thinks to apply the same lesson to the rest of their lives?
The New York Times carried an opinion piece this past weekend by an author named Lorene Cary. Her book has a title that pretty much tells it all: “Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century.” She digs deep into the unsavory aspects of caregiving in the 21st century. It’s often not just transporting a loved one to the doctor or picking up groceries and doing a load of laundry. Caregiving usually starts with no training and then quickly moves into bathing the family member, learning the nuances of adult diapers and all of the other assorted “Activities of Daily Living.” It’s hard, unpleasant and seemingly relentless. One person who came up to me after I had spoken to a gathering some time ago introduced himself as having “recently graduated from four hours of uninterrupted sleep to four hours of interrupted sleep a night caring for his mother.”
And did I mention that most caregivers to family members do all of this without pay? Ms. Cary cites a figure that I still find staggering. According to AARP’s Public Policy Institute this cottage industry we call caregiving would total nearly half a trillion dollars in revenue if all the voluntary caregivers were paid just minimum wage. Ms. Cary also raises a point that can easily get missed if we just translate this “caregiver crisis” as some call it into dollars and cents and hours spent. She says, “Too many people have to reconfigure their lives around a loved one’s disability.” She goes on to talk about a different kind of national debt based on what she labels our “Gross National Happiness Index.”
If you are a caregiver, try a little exercise. First, in one column list all the activities you have directed to your care receiver this past week….the trips to the store, the in home tasks…everything. Next, make a list of all the activities in which you have participated just for yourself? If that second column looks a bit wane, start today to rebalance your books and begin by caring for the caregiver. It will actually make you a better caregiver as it also makes you a healthier and happier person!
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.