My youngest sister had struggled with cancer since 2019. She passed away on January 28th 2022 @ 2:53pm.
Valentine’s Day was approaching but it was the last thing on my mind. I remembered that she had always sent me a Valentine; usually home made. She was the only member of my family who did. Many times I had told her she didn’t have to go to all that trouble but she did it anyway, year after year. This year would be different, there would be no Valentines.
Then our doorbell rang and my husband answered. All I could do was hear their conversation. Our caller was a little neighbor girl. The sound of her small voice reminded me of my sister. She presented us with some cookies and her hand-painted card. “I thought you would like these;” she said. We had never received a Valentine gift from them before. My husband handed the bag to me. I ate a cookie and cried; it was just like my sister used to make. This gift was “ordered” from beyond and arrived at my lowest point: one final Valentine. Love is stronger than death.
This event made me think about my work with caregivers. How does the process of caregiving’s end impact them? A caregiver, whose recipient dies, has a loss of role as well as a loss of a loved one. Society isn’t always helpful; “Why don’t you go out and celebrate your freedom?” [from caregiving] How would you respond when you’re in mourning?
Some people inquire about the caregiver’s next career move; “Are you going to go get a job?” Many caregivers have had to give up promotions, to preserve their caregiving role. They re-enter the workforce with a financial deficit. Caregivers need to re-enter the workforce but how and where? What skills do they need now? Where are the new jobs? Thus, former caregivers face a more uncertainly-funded retirement. Wouldn’t you feel lost when you realized that work-life, and former friends have moved on? Do these conditions make a former caregiver want to celebrate; or to wonder where to turn? (!)
Still, there is the ever-present grief. Some cultures weave that process into a ceremony. Ceremony helps in two ways, it commemorates and encapsulates. Commemoration seems obvious; like saying a prayer or lighting a candle. Encapsulation isn’t as obvious. Once the candle is lit or the prayer said; it’s done. Once a physical action expressed the emotions of the Caregiver its performance holds those feelings. Caregivers need to be honored and recognized for their loss as well their service. The emotion becomes action; as the action contains the emotion. Giving emotion a place and holding it, frees energy to devote to caregiver re-entry.
Paid caregiving staff would benefit from recognition as well. I attended a funeral for an elder who had full-time care at home. The family, wisely, invited the former care staff to the funeral and the meal-of-condolence afterwards. Family members introduced the staff to various mourners. That’s not only kind; it’s necessary. Paid staff can become attached to their elders. “They also serve who only stand in wait”* (on the elder). Would our society attract better caregiving staff if they knew they would be recognized for their service?
Transitions from caregiving require time, and money. That same family paid each staff member for two weeks in addition to their time at the funeral. Hooray! They need to find another job. How would one leap to a new job in 24 hours?
Former family caregivers find their service is considered “time-off” by employers! Really! Managing elder care takes skill and coordination; valuable traits. Getting the elder to cooperate with care is an art; like that of negotiation. It’s time to see caregiving as a valuable experience.
Family caregivers need the same things but there is no system for them. Military personnel, re-entering civil life, can get help with training, and support. These processes of loss, grief and rebuilding in caregivers goes unrecognized by society; leaving them isolated.
As the GIs returned from WWII, there was the 52-40 club. Each person got $40.00 for 52 weeks. There is no such program for former caregivers. Why not? Oh NO! Such a program would cost money! Family caregivers usually serve for free. They SAVE over $10 billion dollars for our society. If we had to fund that care, our country would be in serious trouble. If we had a caregiver re-entry program it would be a WIN, WIN, WIN.
First Win: We could incorporate already-existing social structure like churches, to incorporate caregiving recognition and support into their mission. Former caregivers could pass on their acquired wisdom to support new caregivers.
Second Win: Money spent on education for former caregivers pays off in better wages earned and more tax revenue for society
Third Win: Former caregivers, who are better able to recoup their lost earnings, would be less likely to require public assistance in their old age.
A former caregiver re-entry program wouldn’t cost, it would pay.
* A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Has this happened to you? “I took groceries to my Mom. She wanted have coffee with me. I’ve tried to tell her I couldn’t, but she just doesn’t get it! I don’t know what to do”!
Caregiving is a demanding process and Covid-19 adds more demands. Caregivers still try to respond to their loved ones even under new circumstances. In the past, the caregiver could might take the elder shopping; not now. Shopping was an outing, a chance to socialize, and a chance for the caregiver to assess how the elder was doing. Now, we wear masks and are encouraged to shop as quickly: a-l-o-n-e. We only have a fleeting glance at our loved one on food drop-off. We can’t just pop in the house or care facility to check on things for ourselves. We must rely on reports from our loved one, the staff or (sometimes) the news. Imagine reading the news and learning your parent’s facility has a Covid-19 outbreak! Caregivers revealed they felt guilty before, it’s especially true now. Some guilt seems to be rooted in the feeling, “I can’t do anything!”
Yes, you can.
Caregivers used to worry about elders taking medicine properly or eating regularly; now worries include possible exposure, illness & death. To add to these concerns, seniors seem to want more from the caregivers. They ask caregivers to run more errands or ask for things not appropriate to their diet or welfare. An elder asked me to try to take money out of an ATM with his bank card!
Why are elders making more or different or even illegal requests? There are a couple reasons. First, caregivers make the distinction between the Covid-19 as the cause and the changes in our lives as the response. Sometimes, that distinction is not as clear to the elder. “They just don’t get it”; is a sign to caregivers that the senior hasn’t understood in the first place. Everybody has studied something that felt very different when actually experiencing it. Think of your first time behind the wheel of a car. No instruction manual prepared you for that feeling of your foot on the accelerator. Childbirth classes help, but they can’t communicate what it feels like to give birth to a child. After the experience, we “got it”. Making it real,related to the senior’s early experiences, helps them to “get it”.
Second, caregivers understand the impact of this pandemic process. So, instead of doing more errands, we need to take the time to help seniors grasp the process. We feel guilty because we can’t take them out, or can’t give them a hug. So, when they ask for more and more, we do it because it makes us feel better. Have you noticed that more errands just aren’t enough? That’s because errands don’t fill the senior’s real need: finding meaning and support. A conversation, in which you focus on their early experiences, such as quarantine, helps them feel the reality of current circumstances. Explanations don’t work as well as a trip down memory lane. Just making the effort to help them understand the experience will fill their need for direction and support from you. Your senior relies on you in ways they can’t express. When they feel like the world has gone crazy, they look to you. When you show effort to help them understand (not expertise) they become calmer and you’ll feel better too.
Third, just saying NO, puts limits into their lives and is another way to calm your senior. When times are uncertain, a clear guide creates a sense of stability. They sense that you are looking out for them and you are their leader through these times. Your firm guidance gives them clarity.
Then, you have more time and the emotional space to feel less guilty.
Caregivers need not do e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g; just the right things.
Fourth, a rule of thumb for elders with dementia is; the more dementia, the longer “emotional antennae”. Your seniors are highly attuned to your moods. They just can’t process the information the way they used to. Covid has shifted everyone’s life. Elders sense that you are struggling to adjust your lifestyle. Caregivers may not want to show these struggles. They feel guilty these the elders depend on their care. The elders already know. When you put words on your feelings, it’s like putting on an oven mitt; now you can handle hot stuff. Your words become the elder’s way to express their own feelings. Keep it simple but keep sharing. Remind them of any major adjustments they had to make in the past: WWII rationing, Great Depression job losses. Emphasize how they made it through hard times and the example they were to you. Thus, the caregiver becomes the mirror that reflects the senior back to their best self.
Finally, remind the elder this is only for now, it will not last forever. As the old song says: “Some day; s-o-m-e-d-a-y, we’ll be together (yes we will)!
Corona Virus-19 is not your parents' quarantine. Before vaccines, quarantines were a common event. Your senior may have lived through several of them. with the passage of time, the anxiety and social disruption may have been lost. All that remains in their minds is that they survived. I've met some seniors who think this is just another flu. They believe that, because they've lived this long, they're immune. It's been a challenge to convince them that this virus has an impact closer to that of the 1918 Spanish flu. I usually ask them if their parents ever discussed the Spanish Flu. Then I draw the comparison.
I've also had to explain that our immune systems change with age. We all know hair turns white/gray with age but not all changes are equally visible. The senior may not realize that they may succumb to this disease because their immune systems are affected with age.
I share these points to forewarn caregivers that your senior my see this disease very differently than you do. What's in your senior's mind? If the senior doesn't get the message, they will be more likely to get the disease.
Stay well and set a good example; wash your hands with your senior.
The Strange Psychology of Stress and Burnout, which appeared in BBC WorkLife’s November 17, 2019 post, discusses the relationship of stress to Cortisol; important. The article described several results or diseases that begin with exposure to prolonged stress. It also mentioned some situations that can cause stress but left one out; caregiving! Already, 34.9 million people are self-identified caregivers. In addition, some people are starting to do caregiving and don’t realize they’re in this new role; yet.
This article shows the photo of a man; yet 66.5% of caregivers are women. The photo shows multiple phones. Yes, many caregivers have spent time on the phone to coordinate care for the elder. However, caregivers face the competition of simultaneously dealing with home, job, and possible child care while doing caregiving! The focus of the article is on job-related stress. Caregivers bring their stress to work with them. Thus, what looks like job burn-out might be a result of simultaneous stressors; job and caregiving.
The remedy described in the article involves changing the perception of the person under stress; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and changing jobs or shifting responsibilities. Sadly, these are not usually available to the family caregiver. She may not have insurance coverage for therapy. Group insurance plans may not recognize family caregiving as a stressor worthy of intervention. How does the working caregiver access therapy? She has no “off-duty” time. She goes from the career job over to the home “job”.
It’s time for all of us to make sure caregivers as SEEN and heard.
“‘This will be catastrophic’: Maine families face elder boom, worker shortage in preview of nation’s future,” from The Washington Post, could be a description of a dystopian movie: it’s not. This is the state of State of Maine, which is the harbinger of things to come for the rest of these 50 United States. We need to listen to this alarm.
We’re facing a demographic dilemma: not enough young people to fill all jobs, even those outside of elder care. We need them now! Where do we get them? We can’t hire them because they were never born! Thus, current workers remain on the job long after it’s safe or appropriate. Results include accumulated injuries to workers who keep doing injurious jobs. Even the field of healthcare can’t find enough workers or volunteers.
The State of Maine has learned that there is no one available to fill home care jobs. There is no one to fill care facility jobs either. Professional fields have the same problem; many of the number of nurses and doctors are now older and there are not enough of them it is and there’s no one to replace them.
Medicaid pays far less than other employers, drawing the few workers away from elder care. However, simply raising wages won’t help if there are not enough people to hire!
Maine is already experiencing the results, some facilities closed altogether. Others closed admissions for months due to too few staff. No vacancies in care facilities means families must place their loved ones wherever they can. A loved one far away means a l-o-n-g commute to visit. Younger, disabled people also get caught in this care-crunch. If no one is available, some adult children try to fill the gap. Those care gaps further pressure the few remaining working adult children.
Keep this number in mind:
*By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over 60.
*The number of seniors will DOUBLE between 2015 and 2050.
*The senior population over 85 will TRIPLE in that same period.
**We will need 7.8 MILLION new people to fill these jobs. Since we didn’t give birth to them; where do we get them?
This isn’t as riveting as a news story as a fire, or a shooting, that’s the problem. The numbers of affected families are there, but they aren’t collected (aggregated). This problem is spread everywhere.
We’re in a presidential campaign yet no candidate is talking about this national problem. Why? This demographic dilemma is happening one family at a time: Your family is next.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.