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Giving a care: What does it take?

I’m a regular reader of advice columns. I just read one that prompted an eye-opening pause.

The query came from a woman regarding her 94-year-old grandmother. I suspect her questions were well-intentioned. Perhaps the writer had been designated by the family to record issues regarding the grandma’s unwillingness to relinquish her independence and move out of her home. As I read the column, I understood the frustration that everyone involved must be experiencing. I have been there and felt that.

But the situation was described in a way that suggested the family was providing “caregiving,” and the care recipient was “not cooperating.” It seemed to portray the independent ager as unjustifiably difficult and obstructionist.The advice-giver’s response was powerful — maybe just a little harsh. It suggested that weekly check-ins and “dropping off groceries and supplies” should not be termed “caregiving.” It, in fact, might be termed “neglect.”

One textbook definition of elder caregiving is “the act of providing unpaid assistance and support to family members who have physical, psychological or developmental needs.”

That’s a fairly sterile and highly incomplete way of describing the obligation (and opportunity) to take care of a beloved parent or a long-held friend. The hands-on tasks that are required, and the emotional investment needed, is so much bigger than that particular definition suggests. And what further complicates this challenge is each caregiving situation is different and uniquely complex.

Those of us who have been in the position of giving care to an aging spouse, parent or dear friend know elder care is intense and unrelenting. There are no road maps for doing it — or not enough. AARP websites offer some information. Local area aging offices do, as well. Having a “caregiving contract” or written personal care agreement is one way to get your arms around it. Check out the Family Caregiver Alliance and the National Center on Caregiving for more information (www.caregiver.org).

Reaching out for any and all assistance is a good thing. Giving care not only requires the involvement of the entire family but, to borrow a phrase, “it takes a village.” And using that phrase reminds me about the lack of attention to this nation’s existing and future eldercare issues by our elected officials and political candidates. But that’s another column. It, too, will be harsh.

There are significantly larger numbers of older adults in need of caregiving today than there were even a few years ago. These folks are going to live a very long time, sometimes with multiple chronic conditions. It’s a continuing challenge for all of us.

But let’s raise the bar even more. The committed and caring family caregivers who will be desperately needed are most often people working full or part-time. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, “61 percent of caregivers are employed." And that percentage has jumped dramatically in the last few years. That means we need employers willing to understand, support and assist employees who are in a caregiving role. Many do, but more are necessary.

It takes a village? Yes, and a community of caring.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.