The day before Easter Sunday, deep into my caregiving experience when my husband required 24/7 care, a relative who had committed to come over the next day so that I could go to church on Easter Sunday called me to say that she would not be coming over after all. No explanation. No apology. Just not coming.
I had been so looking forward to going to church. I needed the break. I needed to do something normal. I wanted to take part in the traditions of Easter in my town as I had in years past – the flowers, the bonnets and gloves, the little girls in their patent leather shoes, the stories of resurrection and redemption. Easter, to me, was always the hard-earned triumph of Spring over our long, dark, cold New England Winters. This was just one more disappointment of caregiving and I accepted it.
Early Easter Sunday morning, my phone rang. It was Veronica, the caregiver we had hired months ago as a nurse’s aide for Joel Mondays through Fridays. Sundays are Veronica’s day off to spend with her own family. When I answered she said, “Go up and get showered and get pretty. I’m coming over so that you can go to church.” How had she known? “I just had a feeling you might need me,” she said.
This gift, from one caregiver to another caregiver, feels as poignant to me today as it did five years ago. I will never be able to thank her enough for all she did to care for both of us, patient and caregiver.
This Friday, we celebrate National Caregivers Day. Invented in 2016 by the Providers Association for Home, Health and Hospice Agencies (PAHHHA), National Caregivers Day falls on the third Friday each February. It isn’t a Hallmark holiday, no cards at the local drugstore to buy and send, but, if you have a caregiver in your life, this would be a good day for you to do something nice for them.
Caregivers are often described as “a silent army,” working almost in the shadows, keeping our lives running smoothly. Let’s take a moment to honor a range of caregivers who make our lives go.
Informal Family Caregivers
It’s likely that two out of every ten people in your immediate circle are caring for a loved one, an aging parent, a spouse, a sibling or child or neighbor. Informal family caregivers are all around us, just putting one foot in front of the other and doing whatever next thing needs to be done. They work down their caregiver checklists, barely looking up. Here are two ways you can make their lives easier.
First, see them. Freud once said the greatest human need we have is to be seen. Caregivers have become experts at blending in, smoothing over, staying out of the limelight, putting others first. Give them a quiet thanks. They don’t need a brass band, but they do appreciate it when we see what they do and say so.
Second, do something for them that they don’t have to direct in any way. One thing I hear from caregivers all the time is that they can’t easily answer the question: “How can I help?” The feeling is that they have enough to do without helping you help them too. A better approach: imagine, or tune in to, their needs, find something you do well, and give that without asking. In my caregiving world, I frequently had people ask what they could make me for dinner. What worked better for me was when I’d walk out to get the paper and someone had tucked a basket with homemade soup and bread on my porch. One friend sent someone with a snow blower to shovel all the walks around my house. I can think of many examples where a friend all the way across the country woke up, thought of us, identified something we needed, and made it happen without my having to weigh in.
One more thing. If you’re in the medical profession, notice those people who show up in the shadow of your patient. Look them in eye and ask them how they’re doing. One medical doctor admitted that it wasn’t until he had been a caregiver himself for his mother in the last months of her life that he began focusing on the needs of the caregivers sitting right beside his patients.
Frontline workers are paid professionals who have had arguably the worst year for what they do. During the global pandemic, they went where none of the rest of us – if we managed to stay isolated and healthy -- dared go. They did things we didn’t have to do; they saw things that we didn’t have to see. A friend whose daughter is a nurse suggested we send something to the hospital that she could also share with their colleagues at work -- “something they can slip into a pocket and go on to the next patient.” We sent a box of Kind Bars and gift certificates for local take out. The whole team sent their thanks. Cards and flowers also work. When someone goes above and beyond for us, find a way to say thank you.
Even before the global pandemic, we could count on the domestic workers in our lives. The time of Covid has made us recognize how essential these workers are even as they are struggling to make a living. If you are able to work at home because of someone who provides childcare or any other domestic service in your home, consider how important these people are in our lives and where we would be if they didn’t do what they do for a living. Actively appreciate them, sincerely and often. I have heard more than one story of people continuing to pay their home carers the same amount of money they always had, even though the work hours have been necessarily reduced. While that may not be possible or practical, keep their livelihoods in mind.
Finally, while they are not really formal caregivers, thank the teachers in your world. Ask yourself what yours and your kids’ lives would be like if teachers didn’t figure out how to make the last year work. Like the domestic carers that we rely on, they’ve been doing so before Covid and they will do so after.
National Caregivers Day gives us the chance to pause, notice, and honor these caregivers who are quietly lending their hearts and hands to make our lives better. Take the day to recognize and appreciate the role they play in your world.
Karen Warner, MAPP, is an executive coach and president of Tangible Group, and author of The Sudden Caregiver: A Roadmap for Resilient Caregiving, www.TheSuddenCaregiver.com.