JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater gave us a meme we couldn't get enough of. Now that the jokes have been exhausted, it's time to focus on an issue in the shadows of his fabulous escape: caregiver stress.
Our nation's elderly over 65+ is the fastest growing segment of the population replete with chronic and long term illnesses. Due to the oncoming "silver tsunami" along with rising costs of healthcare, the responsibilities of their care are falling on their families. Millions of people like Steven Slater are juggling stressful jobs along with the emotional and physical stress of caring for aging parents.
From a friend, I received a terrific essay written by Carol Levine, the director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund in New York City, and a former family caregiver. It is published here with permission to remind us of the role we will inevitably play in the lives of the people who first took care of us and how this will impact our own well-being:
In the middle of the summer doldrums, Steven Slater's dramatic slide down an airplane evacuation chute has given the chatterati a new topic. Is he a folk hero, or a threat to public safety? Wouldn't we all like to leave our jobs in such a spectacular fashion? (Well, no, not really.) And fundamentally, what made him snap so spectacularly?
The obvious candidate, job stress, may have been only one factor. According to the New York Times account, Mr. Slater is a caregiver for his ill mother and had taken care of his late father, who died from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). A neighbor in Thousand Oaks, California, thought that Mr. Slater's uncharacteristic action "could be the pressure of his mother's illness."
Many studies have shown that family caregivers are at risk for high levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and other forms of mental distress. These problems, if unaddressed, grow worse over time. And male caregivers are less likely to seek help than their female counterparts.
Many family caregivers can understand how Mr. Slater reached a breaking point. Their ordinarily high level of stress can be exacerbated by a sibling who refuses to share the burden or a friend who cancels a promise to help at the last minute. Some triggers can come from the health care system itself: an ambulette driver who leaves an elderly passenger stranded, a receptionist who blames the caregiver for the outbursts of a patient with dementia, or a health insurance agent unable or unwilling to adjust a clearly erroneous bill. Small events can quietly build to an outpouring of rage. The final straw can come from anywhere, including the workplace.
Half of all family caregivers are employed and have to balance their work responsibilities with
caregiving. So they have dual sources of stress. Although some employers have flexible policies for family caregivers, most do not. And most employees do not want to bring their caregiving problems into the workplace.
Mr. Slater's actions were irresponsible, not a protest for working people everywhere, but his
uncharacteristic actions are telling. Like passengers on an airplane, people who require chronic
care depend on others for safety and service, but these "others" have limits, too. As our health care system evolves to one in which more care is provided by family members who often receive little or no training, working family caregivers need a range of employer, professional, and community support to address the growing pressures they endure. Family caregivers do not have evacuation slides.