Anna is 49 years old. She is cheerful, beautiful, and her elderly mother believes Anna is a living angel.
Each morning, Anna wakes at 5 A.M. to make the coffee. While the coffee perks, she visits her mother’s bedroom. “Wakey wakey!” she says, breezing into the room.
Next Anna throws open the curtains and smiles. Then she helps her mother out of a hospital bed. Her mother is not able to walk due to hip issues.
Anna lifts her mother, then carries her into the shower using brute strength. She positions her mother in a specialized shower seat, undresses her, bathes her from head to heel, then brushes her teeth.
“Anna is my lifeline,” Anna’s mother tells me. “My daughter is an angel.”
After the bath, Anna lifts her mother into a wheelchair. She then dresses her mother, fixes her hair, administers medication, and kisses her mother’s face. “I love you Mom,” Anna reminds her mother, just in case her mother needs to hear this.
Then, Anna parks her mother near the television and starts breakfast. Later, Anna doles out more meds, then clips her mother’s toenails, carries her to the bathroom, or pays her mothers bills.
By then, it’s about noon. A friend usually comes to sit with Anna’s mother while Anna goes to work.
Oh, yeah. By the way, Anna works full time.
After her long shift, she comes back to the apartment, and her night has just begun. Before she changes out of work attire, Anna cooks supper, then cleans the house. The night ends when she carries her mother into the bedroom. There, she dresses her mother in a nightgown, gives more meds, and reads to her.
“Sometimes Anna falls asleep beside me,” her mother says. “She’s usually very exhausted after all that lifting.”
The next morning, Anna does it all again.
Carl, in Atlanta, does the same thing with his dad. Carl bathes his father, feeds him, gives meds, and makes sure his father is comfortable.
Carl’s father is not a small man, he weighs about 180 pounds and is over six foot tall. Carl admits that lifting his father into the bathroom, the shower, or into bed is challenging, but he’d have it no other way.
Because when anyone asks why Carl cares for his father instead of hiring professional help, Carl always answers: “He’s my dad.”
The job of the American Caregiver is overlooked and largely unrecognized. These people fly under the radar, they rarely receive any attention, and you’d be hard pressed to get them to find anything exceptional in what they do.
But the demands upon them are numerous and overwhelming. And somehow these tireless saints always get the job done.
Currently, there are 43.5 million people in the U.S. functioning as caregivers to an adult, parent, or child. Roughly 75 percent of these caregivers are female, but hordes of males join the ranks each year.
What’s it like to take care of a loved one? I can’t answer that, but here are some facts:
On average, a caregiver spends the equivalent of 384 hours each month on food preparation, housekeeping, laundry, transportation, and giving medication. This figures into 16 days every month. Which is more than half of each year.
And this is only the beginning. Caregivers spend another 144 monthly hours feeding, dressing, grooming, walking, and bathing their loved one.
Most caregivers admit they are sleep deprived. Almost all get injured. Thirty-nine percent of caregivers will quit their day jobs, which is why most caregivers are hurting for cash. It’s hard to make a living and be an angel at the same time.
Also, caregivers are notoriously sick because their immune systems are weary, malnourished, and weakened from long hours. Many caregivers report forgetting to bathe, eat regularly, or take care of their personal lives.
Older caregivers have a 63 percent higher risk of dying early. One study shows that 70 percent of caregivers over age 70 will die before their patient.
If all this sounds gloomy to you, you’re looking at it wrong. Because here’s the thing. Most caregivers will tell you that caregiving is the greatest privilege of their life.
This morning, for instance, I interviewed a handful of caregivers for this column and each person made remarks like: “I feel so lucky to be able to do this for Mom.”
Or: “Yeah it’s hard, but these are the best years of my life with my father.”
Or: “I believe I was created for this.”
Tomorrow morning, bright and early, Anna’s alarm clock will sound and she will stagger into the kitchen to make strong coffee. Her long day will go forward as usual. Her smile will be huge. Her mood will be light.
Anna’s mother doesn’t know how her daughter does it. The old woman wonders if anyone will ever notice her child’s hard work, or if anyone will realize how much Anna does.
Her mother also wonders whether Anna will ever get married, or have a family of her own. Sometimes Anna’s mother feels guilty and selfish for keeping Anna so close.
But all sad feelings are extinguished the moment Anna enters the bedroom. For Anna is pure joy.
Anna kisses her mother’s wrinkled face, and the whole world glows like Christmas. She throws open the curtains and says, “Isn’t it a great day, Mom?” Anna says this every morning without fail.
And Anna’s mother always replies, “What would I do without you, Anna? You’re my angel. My beautiful angel.”
Usually, Anna laughs at this. Then she rolls her sleeves, wraps her arms around her mother’s torso, and using her incredible strength, she carries her.
Which is, of course, what all angels do.
Happy National Caregivers Day.