I wonder if anyone is studying springtime caregiver burnout this year? I am. At least I’m mulling over two stories from caregivers I’ve heard recently. The same story.
“I’m just not able to manage any longer.” these caregivers tell me. Why, I wondered, would both be tearfully admitting they are at the edge of their tethers all of a sudden, when they’d been managing the care for years? It was a mystery.
It took me a while to deconstruct the events leading up to these caregiver collapse stories. But both offered the same key to the mystery. “Oh by the way” both said, “the personal care aides didn’t come as regularly as usual this winter.” Was there a connection between the support not showing up and the system unravelling?
On a West Coast known for its winter precipitation falling as rain…lots…all winter long…the winter of 2017 was different. Snow, not rain. Lots of snow and ice. Whereas in most families, the inconvenience of the weather events piling up meant forgoing the healthy walk for a day or two, or put off getting the groceries, or even a snow day for the kids, it was a different story for the caregivers. In their homes, a frail elderly person can’t just put life on hold. Family caregivers organize their day around the arrival of the home help to get the husband mom or dad out of bed, or into the bath or onto the toilet. This winter, far too often, the helpers desperately needed for the caregiver’s day to work, just didn’t show up.
“Roads are too icy. The staff didn’t come in today. Can you manage alone?”
“Tut tut, all that snow. Streets are not plowed. Can you manage alone?”
“Storm coming. Staff is being sent home early. We’re short handed. Can you manage alone?”
Caregivers just don’t like to create a fuss. There are reasons for that I think. One is that their self regard has been so ossified by years of their needs being second fiddle to the needs of the cared for “loved one,” that they just don’t have the insight into how dragged down they are feeling. Guilt plays a role too. Most caregivers just can’t bear the thought of not living up to the expectations all around them. But the biggest reason, I think, is fear. Making a stink about anything is risky in the caregiver’s world view. Being demanding can lead to a reputation no caregiver wants to have.
“That one is difficult to please.”
“She’s a complainer.”
“What a whiner that one!.”
Those all-important health authority staff are so powerful in the isolated and dependant world of the caregiver. If a frustrated caregiver ruffles feathers, it’s easy for the powers that be to just hold back the help that a little stretching would deliver. Or simply revert to the harsher side of the rules about who gets what. The way my mother put it was, “you catch more flies with honey,” but the opposite is true. If caregivers make too much of a stink, the flies fly.
Both of the caregivers admitted that they didn’t make a fuss when home help didn’t arrive. They cut the system slack. They said they could manage alone. They thought they were up to managing without help. They had to manage.
Mary’s back went out after 16 years of coping with one proviso, she would not lift her heavy husband. The daily routine revolved around the arrival of the hefty male care aide. Lyn’s 7 years of successfully managing a demented and sometimes aggressive husband has unravelled now, she thinks. Though still physically able, her quivering lip and glistening eyes as say it all.
These stories make me gnash my teeth. Would the fireman call in sick or say he couldn’t make it because it was snowing? Would the policeman say tough luck, the squad cars couldn’t manage on the ice? How about the ambulance paramedics? No. These fine folks would find a way to get to where they were needed. And why? Does it have to do with the pay grade? Or is it also the esprit de corps of the first responder, an assumption that they will find a way to get the job done. And home care workers? Why would they do the difficult job of getting to the job in the foul weather. It’s not in their pay scale to struggle this way. I get that. Most home care workers take home about the same money as the guy who cleans the swimming pool or cuts the grass.
These are just two stories. There is no conclusion to be drawn. There’s not even a trend to be found. But if we can suspect that all that snow this winter might have been climate change coming, something out of our control, can we also admit that changing the climate around caregivers, never taking them for granted or trivializing the challenge of their work, is something within our span of control?
it's about the journey
Caregiving was my first and finest journey. Writing this book about it was the next. It lends support to other caregivers who say, "that happened to me too." I'm on another journey now, advocating for caregiving and an activist to bring on better ways of thriving as we age. It's all brought me purpose and meaning, Come along and get some of that too! I'd love to share your stories. Boldly speaking out about our experiences makes us all part of the change we want to see. So
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