Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

November is National Family Caregivers (NFC) Month. President Bill Clinton signed the first declaration of NFC in 1997, and each president since has done the same. This year’s theme is “Caregiving Around the Clock,” and anyone who is, or has been, a family caregiver knows that caring for an older adult or adults with disabilities can be an all-day/every day and all night/every night commitment.

Family caregiving spans generations, and includes parents, adult children, siblings, partners, spouses, and even friends and neighbors who provide care for a loved one. Caregivers manage a wide range of responsibilities, from household tasks and personal care, to helping with legal and financial matters, and assisting with medical and nursing tasks, these same caregivers often have little or no training. I recall a conversation with an elderly constituent whose wife was recovering at home from surgery. He already handled the household finances and yard work but, for a few months, he was responsible for the cooking and laundry, tasks that his dear wife always handled. “I don’t know how she does it,” he confessed. “It’s a lot of work.” I assured him that he would be fine; that such household tasks are survivable. Sometimes, you have to learn what to do as you do it, a little bit like flying the plane as you build it, a Silicon Valley meme about testing, fixing, testing again, and maybe fixing again before declaring success.

An estimated 53 million adults in the United States have provided care to a loved one within the past 12 months, and I suspect that the actual figure is higher. In Virginia, one in five adults is a family caregiver. And in Fairfax County, nearly 60 percent of older residents provide unpaid care at home for a chronically ill, disabled, or aging loved one. The “unpaid” part is of critical importance to many families. Constrained retirement incomes, heeding wedding vows that included “in sickness and in health,” discomfort about having strangers in the home, fear of nursing homes, and that good old American virtue of independence may contribute to a desire to keep caregiving responsibilities within the family circle, and more affordable.

The family circle already may be overburdened. Demands of a job, child care, and maintaining a household (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, etc.) can be challenging for many families. Adding caregiving for an aging parent or family member to those daily tasks can stretch one to the breaking point, even with love and the best of intentions. Caregiving, by its very nature, is up close and personal, depending on the existing loving relationship between the family member and the caregiver. Physical and mental demands of caregiving can create tensions, though. Tempers may flare, words can’t be retracted, and exhaustion, for the patient and the caregiver, creates unanticipated tensions, despite best efforts.

That’s when respite can be a big help. Caregivers need care, too, and the NFC observances this month provide caregivers with evidence-based programs, educational webinars, and workshops, as well as resources and services focused on caregivers’ needs. You can help, too. Invite caregiver friends for coffee, or lunch, or a movie. Arrange to stay with their loved one so they can take a break by themselves. Maybe they need to get a haircut, or have their nails done; personal care is important for caregivers, too. For more information and ideas, log on to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/familyservices/older-adults/family-caregiver-support-programs.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.