My mother died in late October from ovarian cancer at the age of 84, making this my first Mother’s Day without her. I want to honor her memory this year even though the holiday will be a struggle; I am just now starting to feel her absence and to grieve.
I didn’t have time to grieve before now. There’s been so much to do — mounds and mounds of paperwork to file with insurance companies, Social Security and the Office of Veteran Affairs. There were so many doctors’ appointments to reschedule for my father; I neglected his needs while my mother was in hospice.
Speaking of neglected, I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible with my two children to make up for the weeks I didn’t see them last year because I was tending to my parents. And then there is work. I am behind at the office and I’ve been putting in long hours to try and make up for the time I missed last year when I took time off to be with my mother.
The Weight of Grief
So just as I’m supposed to be pulling my life back together following my mother’s illness and passing, I feel like I am starting to unravel. I cry — a lot. Songs, TV shows, weather reports, my kids’ report cards, all cause my eyes to fill with water quickly and unexpectedly. It happens on trains, on planes, in meetings and at soccer games.
Sleep is a problem, too. If I make it through the night without waking for a 3 a.m. worry session, I dream about my to-do list. The world thinks I should be starting to feel better, but I feel worse.
I’m going through the motions — getting out of bed every morning, showering, going to work, visiting my father every Saturday, answering, “Fine, thank you,” when asked, “How are you?” But if I could, I would stay in bed with a bottle of white or a bag of Double Stuff, or maybe both. Not forever, just for a while.
How Many Others Are Struggling?
As I walk around hiding my tears behind my sunglasses, I look at other women my age and wonder how many of them are also on autopilot, going to client meetings and dropping their kids off at school while their mind is elsewhere worrying about a sick or deceased parent?
Because I know I am not alone.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 39.6 million people providing elder care in the U.S., and the majority of us are women. The average caregiver is like me: female, married, in her late 40s, with a living parent age 65 or older and at least one dependent child. And we are struggling.
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We’re struggling at work; many women reduce their schedules or quit working altogether to accommodate their caregiving duties.
We’re struggling financially; a study by MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving shows women lose an estimated $324,044 in wages due to caregiving, money we will need to support our own care one day.
And we’re struggling at home. Women in the so-called sandwich — caring for both their children and aging parents — report high levels of exhaustion and are concerned about meeting their basic financial expenses, according to Pew Research.
A National Concern
These struggles are not individual problems, or even women-only issues. The aging of America, and the resulting caregiving required, should be everyone’s concern.
Businesses should be concerned about the projected $6.6 billion it costs to replace caregivers who quit each year.
Economists should be concerned about the estimated $375 billion a year of services family caregivers provide for free — work that could contribute favorably to the GDP if it were counted as goods and services.
Families should be concerned about the predicted shortage of qualified, professional caregivers in coming years.
The medical profession should be concerned about how to partner with families on elder care, when family members are busy with work.
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With 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country, we must find a way to support family caregivers so they can support the aging.
I may be hurting right now, but I am also aware of how lucky I am. I work for a company that provides its employees the flexibility they need to take care of their families and I have a strong network of people who help me, so I was able to be with my mother and care for her when she needed it.
Caring for Those Who Give Care
I want the same for others. So as difficult as it is for me to think about Mother’s Day this year, I am. I choose to honor my mother by advocating for the women who care for their mothers, and fathers, and aunts, uncles and neighbors. And I am asking you to do the same.
We must lean on our legislators to put programs in place that will help. We need policies that require an assessment of the family caregiver’s health and ability to provide care as part of an elderly patient’s discharge from a hospital stay.
We need to fund caregiver support programs that provide information, assistance, counseling and respite for caregivers.
We need businesses to consider elder care assistance programs; long-term insurance for parents, in-laws and grandparents; backup elder care services and paid time off for doctor’s visits and emergencies.
We need family, friends and neighbors to recognize the impact of elder care on primary caregivers. And we need them to offer support, encouragement and maybe a few hours of help so we can run errands, catch up on paperwork, spend time with our children or maybe just spend a few hours alone in bed dipping Oreos in our chardonnay.
Liz O’Donnell is the author of Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman and the founder of HelloLadies, where she blogs about balancing kids, career and elderly parents.