Today much is being written about the greying of America. The fastest growing segment of our population is over 85, with more Americans turning 85 every day than are born. This phenomenon of an aging tidal wave also affects the Jewish people. The UJA- Federation population study reports that in 2002, 288,000 Jews were 65 and older. The forecast for the range of services for older adults is no longer an “estimate” for the future. The time has already arrived.
What does that mean for many of us who are busy with our everyday lives? It means that if we are not already caregivers for an older adult, it is very likely that we will be in the future. In addition, most caregivers will care for several different family members, sometimes at the same time—which can further complicate situations. Are we prepared for the many tasks that being a caregiver for an older adult means? Probably not.
Caregiving often hits us during a crisis or an illness that mobilizes us into action. Sometimes that motivates us to make good choices when we take action. But this is not always the case when a loved one is in a hospital and we are asked to make quick decisions in an environment that is as strange as any foreign country. Being prepared can help. It is important to know options and resources. But just as we say during the Seder, sometimes we need help knowing even what questions to ask and we need to look to someone to guide us.
Help can be financial, physical or psychological/emotional. Sometimes it may be all of those things. This might mean arranging homecare, transportation to appointments, arranging finances, and dealing with government agencies, other family members and even the care recipient. The list continues and often feels endless.
Recognize that caregiving is often an overwhelming and exhausting responsibility. And also recognize that taking care of oneself is often missing from the list that caregivers create for themselves. But putting yourself and your needs on the list is vital. Statistics have shown that 40% of all caregivers become clinically depressed and rarely seek treatment or help. Concomitantly, this stress can lead to elder abuse. Thus we need to develop our own repertoire of coping skills. Older adults are often placed in long term facilities not because they have deteriorated physically but because their caregiver can no longer maintain the role.
Why do we become caregivers if the job is so challenging and difficult? Initially we might feel like we have no choice. The care recipient is family. We do it out of responsibility and love. These are our parents, our spouse, our siblings and extended families. We are grateful to the care and love that was shown to us by the care recipient. We are taught to have Hakarot Hatov (being grateful) in our tradition, so even when we don’t always have that good a feeling for the person, we still assume the role of caregiver. Inevitably, this induces a bundle of mixed and complicated emotions. The word in Hebrew for honoring our parents is kavod. But one commentator translates honor from the same root as heavy. Thus the Torah recognizes the arduousness of our task. Nevertheless we do it to show the next generation what we hope they will do for us and to teach a family history that can never be transmitted the same way as in school. When we do the best we can, which often includes mistakes and mishaps as well as golden moments and memories, we feel blessed.
And so, as the holidays approach, we will be spending more time with family. Suddenly we will see changes in behaviors and health that we hadn’t seen before. Siblings come together and have differences of opinion on how to handle Mom and Dad. And Mom and Dad have opinions themselves on their situation.
Being a caregiver is one of the hardest jobs we will ever have. One important word of advice: No matter how hard you plan, expect bumps and unexpected turns. Learn to embrace them, accept the difficult and hold onto the good times.
By Harriet Blank, Director of OHEL Geriatric Services