Love and work are life’s cornerstones, and I witnessed these two forces clash powerfully when I was producing Caring for Mom & Dad for PBS. (The documentary, narrated by Meryl Streep, aired in May. The photos in this article are some of the families featured in the program.)
Early in my research, I met a Hispanic woman whose situation showed me how overwhelming caregiving can often be. Her husband had developed Alzheimer’s and occasionally had violent outbursts. She had become afraid of him, yet loved him and could not leave him home alone for fear that he would wander off.
I met with her and her medical advocate in their tiny kitchen as her husband looked on. She showed me a drawer full of alphabet letters made of wood that she employed to occupy him — the same letters used to teach toddlers their ABCs.
Through a translator, I asked: “What one thing would you change in your life, if you could?” She looked at me and burst into tears. She said she wanted to return to her job as a gardener. She had become a prisoner in her own home.
On The Front Lines Of Caregiving
As much as caregivers want and choose to care for their loved ones in their homes, it can be isolating, emotionally burdensome and disruptive to their work. Nearly 70 percent of working caregivers caring for older adults confront work-related disruptions, including backing off a career, working part-time or quitting altogether.
Fortunately, the woman I met was able, with the help of her medical advocate, to get her husband to qualify for an adult day services program paid for by Medicaid, so she could return to her job. She needed the income and also wisely knew that work provided her with purpose, gave her an outlet for socializing and provided respite from her overwhelming caregiving duties.
Meeting her helped me understand the issues that would find their way into Caring for Mom & Dad. In the documentary, we introduce eight families who are devoted to caring for their parents, even while they struggle to balance jobs and families. Some middle-class families live in fear of losing their homes, or not having enough savings for their own retirement.
Family caregivers represent the lynchpin of a fragile, homespun network of support in America. Their economic contribution is huge, rivaling the cost of Medicare. But as America grows old and lives longer, society needs to do more to support these valiant, hardworking caregivers on the front lines.
Tsunami Of Change Is Coming
I decided to make this film because right now, a silver tsunami is crashing on our shores as 76 million boomers come up to their retirement years. Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65.
Americans are living longer than ever before and soon, the old will outnumber the young.
This is a tremendously important issue, and we should be preparing for the changes that will come with this population shift and nearly all of us will give and/or receive care.
I have been moved to tears on many occasions on this film, witnessing how hard it is to be a caregiver. Caregivers work tirelessly and lovingly to care for their spouses and parents.
They also want to stay employed — even under the most challenging circumstances. Our country needs to get ahead of this issue and provide far more infrastructure to support both our caregivers and their aging parents. Elder care is as important an issue as childcare.
My hope is that our film, by showing the realities caregivers face, will spark conversation and ultimately an increase in support for them.
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