November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize and honor caregivers, raise awareness around caregiving issues, educate communities and work to increase support for our nation's caregivers.
Family caregivers are holding up the sky for everyone else.
Let’s do the numbers. According to A Place for Mom, in 2020, 41.8 million Americans provided unpaid care to an adult over the age of 50. Eighty-nine percent cared for a family member, and nearly half were caring for a parent. Seventy-five percent were women. Here’s the kicker: That number increased by 9.5 million between 2015 and 2020, the increase being in those caring for a parent.
What those numbers don’t show is how many of those caregivers are burned out, in ill health themselves (often due to the stress of caring for another) or suffering from depression. Let’s throw this into the mix: the U.S. is one of just three developed countries without a national family leave program (Caring Across Generations). Only 11 states and the District of Columbia have a state policy (AARP).
I left my adult home in 2012 to return to my childhood home to care for my 96-year-old mother. I planned to live with her for one year; then, with the support of my sisters, move her to assisted living. In the absence of a family discussion of “what’s next, where to, how do we get from here to there” at the beginning, I lived with her more than four years, moving her only when I was exhausted.
There were gifts along the way. My mother was a wisdom-holding elder to many. Because I am family, with all the history that comes with a parent-child relationship, I didn’t always see it. I saw her diminishing body and mind; I experienced the relationship challenges we had always had. But people regularly told me, “I love your mother.”
She embodied kindness and hope and grace. She was proof that you don’t have to do anything earth shattering to change the world. I saw her nearly sightless eyes smiling behind her dark glasses as she straightened her slightly bent body and spoke a kind word to a restaurant patron. That person smiled at the child at the next table, because kindness begs to be passed on. The child stopped fussing and shyly smiled back, before giving her mommy a hug. There were bright spots, but mostly there was exhaustion.
The time is now to radically overhaul the country’s care infrastructure. The Biden-Harris administration has been addressing the need since they took office. This past April, President Biden signed an executive order that included more than 50 directives to nearly every cabinet-level agency to expand access to affordable, high-quality care, and provide support for (underpaid and undervalued) professional care workers and family caregivers, calling for investments in the fiscal year 2024 budget.
Call to action
If you have an aging family member (or if you are the aging one), have the conversation. We all think we will escape old age, that Tinkerbell will save us. Tinkerbell is a fairy tale. Make a plan.
If you are a caregiver, please seek the support you need. You cannot do it all. Your county Area Agency on Aging is a good place to begin.
If you know a caregiver, offer support (be specific).
If you are not in the midst of it all right now, call your representatives and urge them to support legislation that improves conditions for caregivers. Sign the #CareCantWait petition on the Caring Across Generations website (CaringAcross.org) to tell Congress not to ignore families.
Whoever you are, thank a caregiver.
Gretchen Staebler is the Southwest Washington-based author of the award-winning Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver. Her memoir, published by She Writes Press, is available locally at Book ‘N’ Brush in Chehalis and HUBBUB in Centralia. It can be ordered wherever books are sold.