Family Caregivers Sharing The Journey

02/10/2017 07:52 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

I joined millions of people around the world who came together on January 21, 2017 to raise our voices for the March on Washington.

Our Tribes continue to promise to fight to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline out of our homeland.

While we face confrontations between different world views, with the space between the lines vibrating with tensions of race, historical trauma, broken treaties, money, politics and fear, and while America is in a political crisis—my neighbor woke up with a big task at hand. He is a primary family caregiver.

Nearly one quarter of all U.S households contain someone caring for an older or ill relative, according to statistics provided by The Adult and Aging Network.

At a time in history when we have many groups of people banding together for a common cause, we have other Americans who are going it alone. This gives me reason to stop and reflect on commonalities that bind us all together as American people.

“It was the natural thing to do.” He said. “I never thought of myself as a caregiver, and I didn’t think I would need anyone’s help.” Never mind that he was eighty nine years-old and caring for his wife 24—hours a day, every day of the week, making sure she got her medications, helping her bathe and dress, and feeding her.

Our mutual neighbors began dropping by after work to give him a hand. At first he said, “Thanks, no, I really don’t want to put anyone out.” He told me that he didn’t even have to think about his response; saying no to help was a reflex. But having a wife with a chronic illness was a big deal. So big he couldn’t manage every last millionth detail his own.

Our neighbors began taking turns and showed up at his house at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday and brought dinner. And then they shooed him out the door. “Once I got outside I’d mill around in the yard, and then go sit on the back porch, sip my coffee and read the newspaper.” He paused, and then added, his voice rough as if the words scraped his throat, “Looking back I can see that by taking good care of me, they are making sure that I will be able to care for my wife.”

In my neighborhood circle of friends there are others who are caring for an ill family member, and my experience as a primary caregiver is but a breath away in my memory. At any given moment I can revisit the years my teenaged son lived with a brain tumor. The scene lies untouched in my heart, that place of perpetual remembering. In my bones I remember the winter when he was feeling strong and well, so well that I spent a few days helping care for my cousin, a best friend cousin who had full blown AIDS. And the Saturday night not long ago when I stayed with a friend who has developed Alzheimer’s so that her daughter could spend the evening out.

Pulling a sweater around my shoulders to fight off the ocean mist, I walk to the end of my cul-de-sac to talk with another elderly neighbor, and hear her point of view on the topic of family care giving. She encapsulates her role as the caregiver for her husband by saying, “It’s all about love.” I don’t think about myself in terms as a caregiver. She sighs and shrugs her shoulders, her dramatic expression changing like sunlight slipping behind a cloud and tells me that she is worried about the day when her own health becomes too great of a challenge to manage everything that needs to be done.

Finally I cross the street to talk with a woman who is caring for her elderly mother. The slap of cards and a mix of laughter draws me in. “Mom is 93 now,” my neighbor tells me. She wants to live on her own, doesn’t want to be a burden, but she can’t care for herself anymore.” I asked what she thought she needed most in her role of caring for her mother. With glittering eyes like two polished stones, she said, “To find someone to come by once a week and play cards and work crossword puzzles with her. It would give me time to run errands and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving mom alone.”

Few responsibilities in life are as overwhelming as taking care of an ill spouse or caring for an aging parent or family member faced with a chronic serious illness. It’s something that most of us, if not all of us, will experience at some point in our lives. The demand for family caregiver support is great. Who will answer that call?

There is no perfect time to volunteer to help a friend or neighbor, there is only now.

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