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Aging in Our Time / Who Are the Caregivers?

Photo courtesy of the Alzheimer's Association.  by: Rowena Groves Rye

Photo courtesy of the Alzheimer's Association. by: Rowena Groves Rye

Students of the Bible interpret the phrase “brother’s keeper” in relation to a lesson in caring … or being responsible … for others.  By this interpretation “others” refers to everyone, related by blood or not. 

  Offspring of America’s big birth boom following World War II, however, are focusing closer to home; more than 20% of them, according to statistics, are taking care of those who first took care of them. 

 So with the aging population, an entire world has come alive around Elder Care as Caregiving and caregivers come out of the closet.   Old myopic views of “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” are fading in the glare of research’s great light – a research that is still bringing gray matters out of the shadows. Also, Caregivers and the Caregiven are living longer.

 In “Caregiving:  The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and Renewal,” two-time Pulitzer nominee Beth Witrogen McLeod offers heart and soul to statistics.   She writes: I was drifting along in my tidy little life, as … immortal as the next fortysomething.  Suddenly… everything that had been familiar vanished.” 

 As caregivers work to fulfill the needs of loved ones, many reveal they also are peering into mortality’s eye and seeing their own.  Is it a guilty hope that one day someone may do the same for them?  Ms. Witrogen writes, “(Caregivers go lengths to) travel in health care systems trying to control long-term-care costs while living in a society that idolizes youth and independence rather than wisdom and community.” 

 Following is an excerpt from Ms. Witrogen’s work.  Perhaps not so fitting a metaphor – but one just the same, is how we rescued “Caregiving”: we found it last week atop a pile of used books at a local flea market. Our Time Press publishers are grateful: the book is enhancing our caregiving.       


                                                                                  Bernice Elizabeth Green


Who Are the Caregivers?

(Excerpted from: Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and Renewal –

{(c)2009 Beth Witrogen McLeod. All Rights Reserved.


 Reprinted with Permission. John Wiley & Sons Publishing})


 My parents left a double-edged legacy: awareness of both the sorrow and the generosity of the human heart.  Nowhere perhaps is this paradox more widely played out than on the daily stage of family caregiving, where the unsuspecting can find themselves on a chaotic journey in which the only certainty is the demise of their loved one.  These caregivers are on a path seemingly without end, subjected to the stresses and the guilt of watching another’s pain without being able to erase it, of witnessing a loved one’s dying without being able to prevent it. They quietly sacrifice personal agendas to look after those in need, when sandwiched between child care and jobs and usually without advance planning. They live a world apart from everyday reality and wonder if they will ever be normal again. They have one goal: to maintain the dignity and the well-being of their loved one until the end.  The burden is great, the information insufficient, the doubt overpowering.  Yet, these loyal souls – many of whom do not recognize themselves as caregivers-work largely without professional help, feeling they can and must do everything alone.  There is no question about taking on this role: they do so compelled not only by the dictates of society, but also by the mandates of the heart.

 They bathe, feed, dress, shop for, listen to, and transport frail parents, spouses, children, friends, relatives, neighbors and even strangers.  Night and day they torment over how to keep loved ones out of nursing homes, how to give adequate medical attention and make life-and death-decisions when they have not been trained to do so,  Often in poor health or over age sixty-five themselves, they worry about safeguarding an obstinate relative’s finances or moving him or her to a more secure home.

 They are the parents who lovingly tend to disabled children.  They are the grandparents raising grandkids because their own children are incarcerated, divorced or on drugs.  They are the well spouses who grieve while their mates still live but have forgotten all the love that ever passed between them.  They are the adult children who have discovered an entirely new and unanticipated midlife crisis: caring for an aging parent.  They are mostly women.


 In individual way, they blaze their own trails and build support networks.  Each caregiver must deal with challenges like handling complex medical and legal documents, finding appropriate housing or care facilities, modifying a home for safety, moving a loved one cross-country, massaging a child forever confined to bed, or changing the diaper on a modest and humiliated parent.  Loved ones who have been independent now fear becoming burdensome; family patterns ware turned upside down and futures are forever altered. Usually these tasks are carried out with courage and persistence against frustrating odds.   Shorn of energy but loyal and loving to the end, family caregivers more than measure up to the demands: they are stalwarts who persevere against great obstacles. 

Caregiving is as much if not more, about the emotional impact as it is the physical.  Long after proper housing or medical care has been arranged, greater personal issues remain: how do we keep our hearts open in hell? And why should we try?  This is the inner journey of caregiving: this is the promise of renewal.

 Although family caregiving has always existed across all cultural and economic settings, some elements are unique to this era: an increasingly aged and disabled population that will be filled by the massive baby boom generation (who has ) entered midlife, the lack of adequate and coordinated systems to finance and support long-term care of the chronically ill and disabled, and a renaissance in spiritual seeking and exploration of end-of-life issues.

 In North America, the number of family caregivers has exploded by 300 percent in only nine years (Note to readers: Witrogen’s book was published in 1999.), reaching into a quarter of all households.

 Doomsayers would preach that the world has been overtaken by rage, greed, and resignation. I believe that if you look into the private rooms of caregiving families, you will find the true nature of things as they are, beneath the veneer of social conditioning and confusion, stereotype and illusion.  There you will find great kindness and devotion, a trust of life that surpasses doubt or pain.  There you will find the highest expression of who we are.


 If we close our hearts to suffering, we cannot open them to love.  Every benevolent act counts.  By surviving difficulties and holding on to goodness, caregivers inspire others to summon the power of the spirit.  Humanity can evolve from its violence and recklessness into an enlightened age of caring when the lessons of loss are honored, exemplified by modern-day heroes who fulfill the old mandate: to give. Author contact:


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