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Exclusive for Connection readers
Negotiating life’s turns
Are you ready to be a family caregiver?
By Gail Sheehy
Gail Sheehy is the author of 15 bestselling
books, including the revolutionary Passages,
which remained on The New york times
bestseller list for more than three years and
has been reprinted in 28 languages. Her new
book, Passages in Caregiving, deals with the
challenge that people will most likely encounter later in their lives—taking on the role
of caregiver. Here, Sheehy gives Connection
readers an exclusive summation of the twists
and turns that she has identified from
research and her own experience.—Ed.
Let’s say you’re about to hit 50. your
children are out of the nest. your parents are
enjoying their golden years. Free at last! you
have a whole second adulthood ahead of you.
this is the time to find your passion, maybe
go back to school or start your own business.
then you get the call that changes every-
thing. your mom’s had a fall and broken her
femur. or your dad’s driven through a red
light and had an accident, but he doesn’t
remember how it happened—is it his eyes or
his mind? or your husband’s doctor calls you
with shocking news: “It’s cancer.”
that call came to me. I froze.
the shock plunges you into a whirlpool
of fear, denial and feverish action. you search
out doctors. they disagree on the diagnosis.
you scavenge the Internet. the treatment
options and side effects freak you out. you call
your brother or sister, hoping for help. old
rivalries flare up. you haunt the corridors of
the hospital, always on duty to prevent mis-
takes. It begins to dawn on you that your life
is also radically changing.
you have a new role: family caregiver. It’s
a role nobody applies for. you don’t expect it.
you won’t be prepared. you probably won’t
even identify yourself as a caregiver. so many
women tell me, “It’s just what we do.”
But family caregiving has become a pre-
dictable crisis for americans in middle and
later life. the average family caregiver today is
a 48-year-old woman who holds down a pay-
ing job and still has at least one child at home.
Half of family caregivers work full time.
there are nearly 50 million of us taking
care of adults who used to be independent.
Will you approach this role as an honor or a
has become a
predictable crisis for
Americans in middle
and later life.”
burden? Will you stumble through it in chaos
or find a path?
I found and walked this path for 17 years
with my husband. and in my role as aarP
ambassador for Caregiving, I have interviewed hundreds of caregivers and learned
about useful tools and techniques from them.
In my experience, I discovered eight universal turns caregivers go through.
It begins with Shock and
Mobilization. once the immediate
crisis is resolved, you enter The
New Normal and begin to think,
“oK, I can handle this.” this
reprieve may go on for months or
years. eventually there is a third
turn—Boomerang, another crisis.
But this time you are a little smarter
about how to galvanize. you need to
call a family meeting. you cannot do
If you begin to think you are responsible
for keeping your loved one alive and safe, you
will eventually find yourself at the next turn:
Playing God. this can become an unhealthy,
co-dependent relationship. eventually you
will reach the next and most dangerous turn:
I Can’t Do This Anymore! you must take care
the sixth turn is Coming Back. you have
reached the center of the labyrinth of caregiving. Here, you must appreciate all you have
done and begin to acknowledge that your
loved one is not going to return to the independent person he or she once was. you are
on a different path. you need to replenish
your lifelines—friends, music, work, nature—
whatever are your transports to joy.
the In-Between Stage is a momentous
turning point for those who care for the
chronically ill. your loved one cannot be
cured in an acute-care hospital, but he or she
is not ready to die—and may live on for years.
But our healthcare system has little to offer at
this stage, except round trips to the emergency room and readmissions to the hospital.
Most slow-aging adults today develop
chronic illnesses. they are sent home quicker
and sicker to you, the family caregiver, who
has no professional training, no financial support and rarely any respite.
I found a solution in palliative care—
which is an entirely different strategy.
the final turn is The Long Goodbye. this
is a true gift. you now have time for end-of-life
conversations and some kind of closure.
the passage to caregiver may well be the
most memorable in your life. How you usher
your mom or dad or spouse or sibling out of
this world has so much impact on how you
think about yourself: am I a good
person? Did I do everything I could?
Did I let my siblings do the heavy lifting? Did I hold on too long? Let go
too soon? or did I share precious
moments of full presence right up to
the end? C
MAY 2010 The Costco Connection 47
The Costco Connection
Passages in Caregiving is available in select
warehouses and at Costco.com.