Due to curiosity and a bit of a hunch, I did some research (aka Google search), and according to the U.S. Census, the population of people aged 65 and over is somewhere around 34 million. The population of people aged 40 – 60 is around 70 million. That means, generally speaking, for every two of us in our 40’s and 50’s, there is an elderly person who potentially needs caregiving. And that’s not counting any other people in our lives of all ages who need our extra help, like the disabled or ill.
Continuing my unscientific method, I believe that these statistics are backed up by fact simply by talking to anyone in our mid-life age range. Chances are really good that most of us have either in the past been responsible in some way for the care of someone in need, are currently a caregiver, or are about to become needed in the very near future.
I have many R.W.’s in my life who are experiencing the challenge of caring for a loved one – beyond the usual household maintenance of day to day family care. Some are caring for elderly in-laws who live in the same house with them. Some are having to make the agonizing decision of what to do about the fact that a loved one can no longer live independently. Others are currently in crisis mode, standing bed-side in a hospital. And of course many have had to see a loved one through their last days on this earth. At some point, virtually all of us will wear the hat of caregiver. And that hat is stacked on top of all of the others we are already wearing.
I myself have donned that hat for a few years, being the closest family member and Health Care Proxy for my older brother, who is disabled and dealing with a number of health concerns. As he has aged and declined, that darn hat has gotten bigger and heavier. Clearly, I’m not alone, and as I progress through this role and share experiences with others, I’ve determined there are a few basic attributes we all share:
- This is a job we didn’t ask for, we’ve had no formal training for, and we don’t know how long we’ll have it. Whether a slow and steady need over time, or a sudden and urgent demand, we are just in the right place at the right time to step up to the plate, put on our big girl pants, and do what we have to do. We learn as we go. We have to be willing, able, flexible and strong as an ox. And guess what. We don’t get paid for this job.
- Worry. As if we R.W.’s need any more of this in our lives, our worrying kicks in to overtime. We can’t help ourselves, it just does. There’s never a moment in our day that we aren’t concerned about, and thinking about, our loved one who needs us.
- Exhaustion. The long and wacky hours, the sleepless nights, the 2am phone calls, the juggling of the rest of life with the caregiving role, it all adds up to be a gigantic energy thief. Beyond the physical demands that may be required, we are always mentally and emotionally on overload. Making scary decisions, asking questions, being an advocate for proper medical care…it all can be overwhelming. Then let’s not forget to add to this our own sadness or grief about the situation.
- Guilt. Ah yes, there it is. We are real women. We think we are super heroes. We like to be in control. And yet, some things are just plain out of our control, and we have to stand by and watch someone suffer. No matter how much we wish for a magic wand to make everything better, we won’t ever have one. Some times we are forced to make decisions we don’t want to have to make. Others in our lives will try to reassure us that we are doing the right things, and we cling to their words like some sort of life raft, so the guilt doesn’t pull us under.
- It’s just plain weird. One of the R.W.’s in my life today was sharing her feelings about the caregiver role, which she had experienced with her parents. She made the observation that no matter what is going on with our loved ones and our situation, the rest of life just keeps rolling along. And this can feel kind of bizarre. We emerge after many hours in a hospital, bleary eyed and frazzled, or from a long-term care situation, or from sitting with hospice watching someone take their last breaths, and there it is. Regular life. Our jobs, traffic on the highway, celebrity gossip, bills to be paid, home repairs to be made – none of that stops simply because we’ve been absorbed into a unique environment. Even though it feels weird, my theory is that it is a very good thing that life just keeps rolling along. We need to step away from that other environment from time to time, for our own sanity. We need to have the distraction of “regular life” activities. We need to recognize that there is still good in the world, and our loved one would want us to feel it and experience it. We need to know it is still ok to laugh and smile and find joy.
The best thing about so many of us having similar experiences is that we don’t need to feel all alone. Sure, some days or nights we will feel that way, but that is likely the exhaustion kicking in. So many of us have “been there done that”, and have all felt the same way at some point. We have all fought similar battles. We have all pushed ourselves until we think we can do no more, can give no more, and are at the end of our ropes. Then something small happens, like you unexpectedly run into a friend at Dunkin Donuts and she smiles and gives you a hug, and you realize you can continue to do more. Because you have to. And you aren’t alone.
So to all the R.W. caregivers out there, remember to take a break. To breathe. To find something to laugh about. Have faith that some day the sun will shine again and you will be able to relax. And believe that even in the darkest of moments you have given the most important thing you can possibly give to the person in your care: love.