Monday, July 6, 2015

Mirror Images: What Family Caregivers and Professional Athletes Have in Common

If you are an athlete or sports fan you're probably familiar with phrases like "playing through the pain", "taking one for them the team",  "winners never quit" or "there's no I in team".  These sports clichés all apply to athletes who give their all, regardless of personal glory or accolades, to get the job done, which in the case of sports is to get the win for their team.  Even in sports like tennis, golf or boxing, which focus more on individual performance than a group effort,  there are always coaches and trainers that comprise a team. The same is true of family caregivers and why all of those sports cliches are equally apropos.

If you are a full-time family caregiver you can probably relate to this quote - "In all of the six years of caregiving, I don’t think I was ever the center of attention. So, I had to get centered. I had to be so thoroughly committed and focused on 'them' that over time I created a bag of tricks that would help me cope. As much as a person in the throes of caregiving can be happy, I needed to try and take charge of that myself." -- from the article "Am I Happy" by Adrienne Gruberg, Founder of The Caregiver Space.

For the vast majority of family caregivers life ceases to be about their plans, their goals, or their dreams and becomes entirely focused on another person's care and well-being.

In a recent article for Forbes  titled  "New Snapshot of America's 44 Million Family Caregivers: Who They Are and What They Do"  Howard Gleckman examines a new study which "paints a dramatic picture" of the lives of the nearly 44 million adults in the US who are providing personal assistance for family members with disabilities or other care needs. "That’s more than one out of every six adults. More than 34 million care for frail elders and nearly 4 million help children with disabilities. About 6.5 million care for both."

Gleckman writes:  "The typical family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who is assisting a parent or in-law and working at a paid job. She reports spending an average of about 24 hours-a-week providing personal assistance such as bathing or dressing or helping with activities such as shopping or rides. Almost six in 10 say they perform nursing or other complex care tasks, such as giving oral medicines or injections, wound care, or operating medical equipment., While it is useful to keep in mind that 49-year-old daughter who is the typical family caregiver, the study found important differences among those supporting their relatives.  For instance, while 60 percent were women, 40 percent were men. And while caregivers spend an average of about 24 hours-a-week helping relatives or friends, there is a lot of variation. Nearly one-quarter say they provide more than 40 hours-a-week of care.  And while the average duration of caregiving was four years, about one-third had been providing care for less than 6 months while about one-quarter has been at it for five years or more."    Coincidentally the average career span of a professional athlete in MLB, the NFL, NBA & NHL is approximately the same.

Another similarity between athletes and  family caregivers is that both have to plan for life after their careers are done, which in many cases is not a  simple task. In the case of athletes, they often end their sports career with a host of injuries.  The lucky ones will have earned and saved enough money or garnered  enough celebrity status to provide for long term financial security.  However the unlucky ones will fade into anonymity and like the rest of us try to live their post-sports lives earning a living using the skills they acquired prior to their athletic career.  Likewise caregivers can also find themselves fading into anonymity and financial distress both during their caregiving years and well afterwards.

Yet, while there are many similarities between athletes and family caregivers there are also striking differences.  In many ways the experiences are mirror images, similar but reversed.  There is no glory, celebrity, or financial security to be gained by being a family caregiver.  There are no cheering crowds, commercial endorsements, or congratulatory tweets for caregivers.  And in the case of those caring for persons with Alzheimer or dementia, the simply acknowledgement of their tasks is absent.  Also,  unlike most athletes, family caregivers' primary careers preceded their years of caregiving and their role as caregiver begins at an age when they should be planning for retirement.  This why it is critical for family caregivers to have a plan for transitioning  for resuming their lives after their loved one has passed on.

To read more about the average career span and income of professional athletes in the US click here:

I will be blogging more about this in the weeks to come.  In the meanwhile I invite you to visit my Facebook page for more articles on issues affecting family caregivers.

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