Caregivers fill a lot of roles. Friend, lover, dresser, therapist, financial consultant, medical assistant and more. As my friend Maria Shriver said, “At some point in our lives, all of us will need to be cared for. All of us will also be presented with a chance to step up and care for another.” But most of us aren’t trained to be caregivers and the stresses of the job are many. Tack on the holiday season and the responsibilities multiply.
I think about my own mom who devoted so much of her life caring for her children — and then, just as she was stepping into the light to focus on her own hopes and dreams, she became the caregiver to her aging parents. No one asked my mother if she wanted to do it. I don’t recall her raising her hand for the all-consuming task. It was just assumed that she’d fill the role as the only daughter in the family.
Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady and founder of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, described the job of a caregiver in a recent Op-Ed this way:
“Being a caregiver requires infinite patience, physical and emotional strength, health care navigation skills, and a sense of humor — which can be hard to come by after sleepless nights and demanding days.”Rosalynn Carter
Watching my mother care for her aging parents, I saw a very different spirit than the person who cared for me. As mothers, we are excited and inspired by the possibilities that lie ahead for our kids. We’re fueled by optimism and pride.
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As a daughter caring for her parents in the last phases of their lives, while she did feel a great sense of gratitude and love, it was a role without an end goal to celebrate or anticipate with joy. Being the single support system for others — without having one for yourself — can be a very dark and lonely place.
It is estimated that more than 43.5 million Americans have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, of the 16 million family caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s, almost 60 percent suffer from high emotional stress, and 40 percent suffer from depression.
Caregivers often experience burnout. According to Cleveland Clinic, many people are confused when they’re suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver and then place unreasonable expectations upon themselves to provide limitless physical, emotional and financial support for their loved one.
Last month, as part of her advocacy for both Alzheimer’s and caregiving communities, Maria Shriver challenged us to elevate caregiving and caregivers. And the best way I know how to elevate these selfless men and women is by sharing their stories, like that of my mother, Louise Ruhle.
Despite the many sacrifices, my mother treasures being the “emergency contact for all” and does not take for granted all of the time she had — and continues to have — with the people she loves most.
What my mom wants more than anything is acknowledgement and appreciation, both of which she deserves in spades and costs nothing.
Are you one of the unsung heroes — or maybe you know someone who is? How would you describe what it means to be a caregiver? And what advice would you give to a caregiver who is struggling this holiday season?
NBC News BETTER wants you to know what caregiving means to you. We’ll be highlighting selected responses on our social channels without sharing your name.