By Sally Gelardin
I just received a call from a friend, in her 40s, who informed me that her mother, who is over 70, fell and broke her femur. Her mom, who is still working, is facing rehab and then the sale of her home, because it’s on a hill and has steep stairs.
At some point in our lives, if we don’t slow down on our own, we are forced to slow down.
Early Baby Boomers are now in their 60’s. Many of them are still working, but they may eventually need caregivers.
The pool of family caregivers who are 45 to 64 and can care for high-risk elders (those 80 and older) continues to decrease. AARP predicts the ratio of family caregivers to high-risk elders will drop from four to one in 2030 to three to one in 2050.
In short, there will not be enough family members to care for our parents and grandparents.
Yet, most Americans can’t afford to put their loved ones in assisted living communities.
A life lesson
Those who do serve as family caregivers often report that the role is stressful.
Caregivers who experience extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life, according to a 2004 study.
But caregiving doesn’t have to be stressful.
Family caregivers can learn from an assisted living facility in the San Francisco Bay Area that employs “carepartners.” The community, called AgeSong, coined the term “carepartners” to describe how the paid staff members partner with those who live in the community, rather than merely taking care of them. Carepartners also partner closely with family members.
At AgeSong elder communities, caregiving is not a one-way street: Elders and carepartners care for each other.
Perhaps most importantly, elders teach their carepartners how to slow down. Staff members learn how to make each daily living task a meaningful, engaging interaction. For example, grooming is an activity to be valued, rather than to be completed as fast as possible. Carepartners are taught to listen to elders and respect their needs.
Words and meaning
“Caregiving” and “carepartnering” have the same roots as “career,” from the Latin “carrus” or “wheeled vehicle.” A Middle French derivative of “carrus” was “carriere” or “racetrack.”
Done with haste, caregiving can be compared to careening out of control on a racetrack.
On the other hand, carepartnering includes both the responsibility and opportunity for self-development and shared growth with the person being cared for. That person, of course, is also caring for and teaching the caregiver.
If we think of a carepartner (whether the person is paid or unpaid) as the driver of a vehicle on a journey that can take someone down many roads, then both people can journey in many different directions. The road less traveled can be richer and more open to exploration and learning, and can also include self-care and deeper relationships.
Today carepartners from the fast-track Boomer generation – members of which are often defined as hardworking, independent, goal-oriented and competitive – are being forced to slow down as they try to balance caring for parents, grandparents and children with careers. Still, many Baby Boomers remain on the fast track.
While it may take Boomers a lifetime to slow down, many of their own adult children – deeply affected by natural and man-made disasters, political upheavals and corporate practices – are replacing the fast track with a slower, more meaningful pace of life that includes service-oriented work more aligned with their intrinsic community values.
We all need to slow down, relate, listen, share and appreciate the preciousness of each moment. We need to learn from elders at any age and with a range of abilities – even a child who tells his parents not to argue during dinner.
Elders may move and think more slowly than others, but they are vital and important contributors to the health of our community, country and planet. As we notice an elder becoming more forgetful or frail, we may be projecting our fear of becoming more forgetful or frail ourselves.
Elders strengthen communities
In communities like AgeSong, elders tell their life stories and demonstrate their strengths, such as singing, playing a musical instrument, drawing, knitting or participating in discussion groups.
Those of us who don’t live in assisted living communities also share the desire to connect with others, to feel valued and to be recognized for the contributions we have made and continue to make to our families and society.
We need to create a carepartnering society, where we care for each other and care for ourselves, where we savor each moment. The simplest of tasks can become a special moment.
Creative workplaces can encourage the qualities of carepartnering by creating meaningful relationships with employees and clients, fostering mutual respect, insuring family-friendly environments and valuing each moment of the day.
Sally Gelardin is the former engagement and education regional director for AgeSong assisted living communities. She is a career and life transitions coach, children’s yoga teacher, and author of three books: “Career & Caregiving: Empowering the Shadow Workforce of Family Caregivers,” “Starting and Growing a Business in the Global Marketplace” and “The Mother-Daughter Relationship: Activities for Promoting Lifework Success.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.