11/26/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

The People We Forget to Give Thanks for

If you want to understand the true origins of Thanksgiving, I suggest that you check out an excellent book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. What you'll discover is that the origins of the holiday are not quite as pretty as one might hope. And over time the celebration itself has turned into a bacchanal. The average American will consume 4,500 calories in a single meal, perhaps just enough to fuel the Black Friday frenzy, but still twice the average daily requirement.

But for a moment, let's step back and focus on what the holiday is intended to represent: a national, non-religious day to celebrate with family and friends all the good fortune that most of us are privileged enough to enjoy throughout the year. In its purest form, Thanksgiving is a day when we celebrate one another.

All this has me thinking about who we should be thanking this holiday season. The first person that comes to mind is the star of most Thanksgiving meals, who -- other than the football players -- is the cook. This under-lionized individual has undertaken the effort to clean, shop, cook, layout the table, invite the guests and send everyone home stuffed to the gills. However, there is another category of people that we all know about, but almost always fail to highlight. Their contributions are enormous, their tasks unending and the nature of their labors grueling. We call them caregivers.

I'm speaking specifically about those individuals -- almost always women (83 percent*) -- who care for someone with a chronic or life ending illness at home. They are the unsung heroes of American healthcare. They are members of our family who have quietly undertaken the massive responsibility of helping our loved ones who suffer all the indignities of aging or disease.

These are heroes who act out of love, but who also suffer terribly. In the shadow of the 'patient,' many caregivers suffer depression and other serious health issues. According to research conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute in 2011, 17 to 35 percent of family caregivers view their health as fair to poor.** That's truly tragic, but what's unforgivable is that this fact is widely known and ignored in healthcare circles. And it's not just the healthcare system that's living in ignorant bliss, so are you. The Opinion Research Foundation has found that two-thirds of the American public assumes they will become a caregiver to a family member at some point in the future.

Refusing to take notice of the travails of caregivers is both cruel and fiscally shortsighted. We know who the caregivers are. We should offer the behavioral and medical assistance that would make them healthier and happier while they -- the unsung heroes -- continue to care for those they hold dear. In other words, let's not content ourselves with only giving thanks: let's step up and take care of the people who take care of us.


**Valuing the Invaluable: 2011 Update, The Economic Value of Family Caregiving. AARP Public Policy Institute.