On Ageing by Marian Sherratt

Marian Sherratt 2

By Marian Sherratt

What is caregiving?

Much has been written on the subject of ageing, retirement, and the need to plan for the last third of our lives – assuming we live about thirty years past retirement age. We are encouraged to start saving, investing and planning in our twenties, thirties and forties but the evidence is that very few of us are ready for financial security in our old age. We spend more time planning trips and vacations than we do for decades of non-earning years, and that is a very sobering thought indeed. Added to this is another stage of life that is overlooked in our planning processes, and that is the role of caregiver.

In addition to the financial aspect of retirement planning, there is a gap in our understanding and awareness of one major impact of advances in health care that are lengthening our lives—the role of the informal, unpaid, family caregiver. We ignore, deny, and avoid any thought or discussion of how taking on this role might affect our lives, but the impact can be profound.

So what, exactly, is a caregiver? I once gave what I thought was a pretty good talk on the subject when, at the end of the talk, a woman came up to me and asked where she could apply for the job? Er, oops, uh…either I gave a really bad presentation or it will take more than one explanation to define a caregiver, so for the last decade or so I have been making a clear separation between caregiver and careworker.

A caregiver (carer in the United Kingdom), is the informal, unpaid, family member or friend who provides a level of care without which the care recipient would not be able to live at home. Even then, once a loved one goes into an assisted living or nursing home, the caregiving role does not end as care still has to be managed, concerns dealt with, worry and anxiety to be experienced, bills paid, etc. And, I have to say, the impact of extended caregiving can result in a long-term depression that is woefully under-diagnosed or recognized.

Caregiving is not paid work. The wonderful people who work in private homes and facilities as careworkers differ from caregivers in several ways—they are paid, they have protection under The Employment Act, they have limited work hours, they get days off, vacation, sick leave and, if that job is not suitable, they can quit and get another job elsewhere or in another field. They are careworkers, not caregivers.

The typical caregiver is a woman in mid-life who is also balancing work, raising children, helping with grandchildren, going through menopause, trying to hold onto a marriage or relationship, maybe single or divorced, and is generally trying to be all things to all people. Not a very good recipe for work/life balance. Nor is it a good recipe for retaining a job/career during critical earning years. Yet giving up work, refusing a promotion, or getting fired are all scenarios that put these women on a path to financial hardship if not ruin.

This is not to say men and women of all ages are not caregivers. Give a thought to the young parents whose child is born with lifelong challenges that deny the opportunity for a healthy, independent life. Or the eighty year-old who is caring for a much loved spouse. Or the seventy year-old who is caring for a ninety year-old parent. So much for the “golden years”.

The caregiving role can arrive with sudden shock, through accident at birth or otherwise, a stroke, or catastrophic health condition. Or it can creep up, slowly and insidiously, as age, illness and infirmity replace health and independence.

Family members don’t apply for this role, but invariably they rise to the challenge, do the best they can, as long as they can, until their resources are exhausted. And it is this ‘exhaustion of resources’ that requires the building of awareness for the caregiving role and the tipping point that changes us from parent, spouse, and family member to caregiver.

The tipping point varies with each caregiver and their circumstances. Every situation is different, as is every family and the family dynamics. In future articles I will expand on the role of the caregiver, and what can be done to include caregiving in our long-term retirement planning.

By Marian Sherratt

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