Twenty years ago, Mary Chaput, the director of a local program for at-risk youth, started noticing something that would change her life. Her mother, an active woman in her 70s, was beginning to slow down. Chaput found herself spending more and more time driving her mom to doctors' appointments, cooking and cleaning and helping sort through bills and insurance statements.
She was like millions of Americans: happy to help someone to whom she owed so much, yet increasingly aware of the burden. Good thing she enjoyed it. Chaput left her career, got a degree in aging studies and today, as a program director in the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging & Disabilities, focuses on another kind of at-risk group: family caregivers.
Next weekend, county residents will benefit from Chaput's experiences as she directs the ninth annual Caregiver's Wellness Day, a free event at which family caregivers (that is, the unpaid kind) will be able to take a break from their duties, breathe a sigh of relief and learn methods for reducing the stress and guilt they often live with.
Free respite care is available to all attendees who request it by Monday, Sept. 13.
"Caregivers do not take care of themselves," says Mary Fridley, a nurse who has worked in the geriatric health field for more than 20 years, including as a consultant for the county. "They don't take the time to relax, enjoy life or play. When that happens, they're likely to become ill themselves."
About 60 people are already registered for an event that will include destressing exercises, talks by industry experts and, in Chaput's words, a chance for caregivers to "let their hair down and enjoy themselves — and to realize others are out there doing exactly what they're doing."
It's not just a few. Recent studies suggest that between 40 million and 120 million Americans are offering family care of some description. According to the website for the Johnson & Johnson Caregiver Initiative, "This burgeoning army of family caregivers has become an essential component of the nation's health care system, providing more services in the home — free of charge — than the federal government provides in all settings combined." A 2004 report co-sponsored by AARP set the value of this unpaid care at $257 billion per year.
Paradoxically, family caregivers tend to feel isolated, as though no one else understands their situation. Chaput was happy to discuss the field, and next week's event.
Question: Why is such a day important?
Answer: This is our ninth year, and we'll get people who have come to every one. But we're also shooting for people who have never done this. It'll give them a chance to be around others who are going through the same things they are, who understand the frustrations and fears they have.
For a lot of people, this will literally be the first time they've ever left their loved one in the care of someone else. They'll learn something crucial: "Hey, the world isn't going to come to an end if I'm not there 24/7." Maybe then they'll find ways to [take time off] again so they can take care of themselves better.
Q: Why do so many caregivers have that sense of overcommitment?
A: Family caregivers often don't even see themselves as caregivers. They think, "Well, I'm the daughter," or "I'm the spouse." To them, caregiving is a family function. "I'm the wife; he took care of me for so many years. Now it's my turn." And a lot of guilt can come into it. Let's say you have an adult son or daughter taking care of Mom or Dad. They probably have kids of their own or work full-time. They see [caregiving] is simply what they're supposed to be doing.
Q: Is that wrong, this notion that caregiving is simply a family function?
A: Well, think back to the days of TV shows like "The Waltons." Generations [within families] did live together. It was natural. But now, we're all over the place. I have one [client] who lives in Hawaii; her mom lives here in Annapolis. She comes back here every couple of months to attend doctor visits, see how her mom is doing, to check in on the local caregivers. Even if you're many states away, you still haven't given up the role.
Q: Each caregiving situation is unique, but what are some of the types you see?
A: Some caregivers have the person in the house with them. Others aren't in the house but are in the same general location. Others, as I've said, are far away.
Now that more Americans are living longer, caregivers are also getting older. Caregiving "children" might be in their 70s or more. And another group you've probably never thought about is the growing population of grandparents and great-grandparents who are now bringing up their grandkids and great-grandkids. Maybe their daughter or son is incarcerated or [deceased] or involved with drugs.
Q: What, if anything, do the disparate types of caregivers have in common?