Family Caregiver Wellness Process
When one is in the throws of caregiving, decisions change very quickly. Life becomes a process rather than a carefully planned set of goals and expected outcomes. Caregivers never know what to expect next and when. Since one-fourth of all adults in the U.S. are caregivers, mostly with additional workplace and home responsibilities, the movement from outcomes to process is more relevant to this under-served and over-worked population.
Roots of Career and Caregiver
The roots of "care" in "caregiver" and "carer" relate to the meaning of "career."
A "caregiver" or "carer" "attends to the needs of a child or an adult." In Old French, "carriera" meant "street;" in Medieval Latin, "(via) carraria" was "road for carts." in Latin, "carrus" was a "Galic type of wagon." In all these meanings, the word "care" is related to a journey. If we think of the role of "caregiver" as designated driver of a vehicle on a journey that can take one in many directions, with alternative decision-making options, rather than as one road, then the role becomes richer, more variable, and open to exploration, learning, and infinite possibilities for both enhancing the care of loved one, for self-care, and for deepening family relationships.
This interpretation may seem absurd to many who are in the midst of the caregiving process and who hope for one day to be free of caregiving responsibilities and the need to solve problems collectively with other members of the family support team. However, as boomers (who comprise the largest sector of the population in Western society) grow older, the caregiving role is becoming increasingly important. When aging relatives pass, family members and other loved ones in our own generation will need care. In addition, we shall spend more and more time caring for our own aging needs.
"Career" is the "progression of one's working life or one's professional achievements." It can include both paid and unpaid work. "Caregiving" is a career that includes both responsibility and the opportunity for self-development and shared growth with other members of the caregiving team.
Family members usually don't address caregiving needs until we are thrown into a caregiving situation out of necessity. At this point, it's all "on the job," "by the seat of our pants" training. Family members who have not had a working relationship with each other are thrown together to solve problems that require immediate attention. Family dynamics, such as "expected role in family," and issues, such as "balancing work/personal life and caregiving needs," "asset distribution," and "senior move management," throw family members into unfamiliar territory or back to family relationship dynamics that were never addressed in the past.
A Compassionate Career and Caregiving Process for Those in Mid and Later-Life Transition
At the end of summer, 2007, I wrote an article for NCDA’s online newsletter, Career Convergence, on the “Seasonal Rhythm of Career Decision-Making.” I suggested that late summer would be a good time for career professionals to take stock of where we are in our life/work development.
This year I am starting earlier, as a courtesy to my academic colleagues, who are too busy starting up the school year in early September. As a part-time academic, most of us feel the flow of frenetic pace until Memorial Day weekend and then suddenly everything slows down. Any time one has a break in routine is a good time to reflect – for most of us that is usually at some point in the summer.
My focus is different this year. “Career” for me has expanded to “Caregiving” and “Self-Care.” “Decision-Making” is no longer front and center, because when one is in the throws of caregiving, decisions change very quickly. Life becomes a process rather than goal-driven with expected outcomes. Since one-fourth of all adults in the U.S. are currently caregivers, including many of my colleagues, this movement from outcomes to process is becoming a concept that applies more compassionately to this under-served and over-worked population, Caregivers cross all cultural and economic boundaries. As a distant caregiver, I am part of this population, aware that the clock is ticking for my aging loved ones. As a member of the first group of baby boomers, born shortly after World War II ended, I am also aware that the clock is ticking for my peers and me. Even if we live another 40 years, we are more conscious of end-of-life issues than when we were younger.
One of this country’s biggest challenges is the aging baby boomer generation. Sixty percent of the work force is caregivers, which impacts productivity and quality of life. Since career and caregiving have the same roots (“carriara” – to carry), caregivers (and those who may be caregivers in the future or who advise caregivers) can benefit by reflecting upon the questions that we usually ask clients who are searching for a job or in career transition:
1. Who am I? (self-assessment of strengths)
2. Where am I going? (exploration and research)
3. How am I going to get there? (setting goals and taking action)
The Family Caregiver Wellness Process
Following is a compassionate career and caregiving process that I developed, based on many job search and transition models.
Who Am I?
Before figuring out solutions, it can be helpful to understand one’s strengths. As you read about the values, attitudes, and lifestyle of boomers, reflect upon your own strengths and challenges. With which of the following characteristics of boomers do you identify? What are your unique strengths?
• Work ethic
• Enthusiasm for causes
• It’s not ‘our relationship’, it’s ‘my relationship’
• If you are unhappy in a relationship, exit it
• Job status and symbols are important
• You only live once so enjoy it
• Put yourself first after a life-time of hard work
• Organize life around work not work around life
• You have to work your way to the top
• Free love and free (easy) divorce
• Working longer, retiring later
• The wealthiest living generation
• Consumption and lifestyle take precedence
• Location and friends of prime importance
• Spending the kids’ inheritance on traveling and leisure activities
• Living alone and loving it
• Many doing the sea change and tree change for increased quality of life
• Many downsizing and reverse mortgaging to release capital
• Fear of dependence – extremely independent
After identifying your strengths and challenges, it can be helpful to examine ways that you can apply your values, attitudes and lifestyle to the benefit of your loved ones, yourself, and your community.
In general, baby boomers’ sense of self is well developed, at least compared to our parents’ sense of self. We are aware of the emotional impact of job loss, relationship changes, retirement, caregiving, and other life transitions on our psyche. In general, we have been good consumers and bad savers, which impels many of us to continue working beyond the age we thought we would.
Older Americans have the highest suicide rate of any age group, with depression the major cause. Whether you own your home and have plenty of expendable income or whether you scrimp and save, don’t let yourself become isolated, with no one around to notice your discomfort. Self-care, an equal partner in the career and caregiving dance, includes building and maintaining relationships.
Where Am I Going?
As a parent and worker, I was always in gear – commuting to the workplace, searching for the next job or business opportunity, and bringing up children. When I stopped working full-time in 2000, though I was busy writing books, designing curriculum, and conducting training programs, I felt out of place walking into a grocery store in the middle of the day. Now I see others in my county, mostly in their fifties and sixties, walking around town in the middle of the day, exercising and meeting at cafes. Wherever I go – the gym, the hardware store, the bicycle path, I listen to stories about caregiving aging parents.
Knowdell calls this stage “field research,” because you need to get out of the house, away from the computer to meet with people who are doing then kind of work that interests you. In my 2007 Career Convergence article, I described how I became immersed in eldercare when I moved my mother 1500 miles from her community for 88 years. Everything else in my life seemed irrelevant. Caregiving became more important to me than career. As a long-distance caregiver, I visit my mother every few months, scheduling training programs and speaking engagements around these visits. For the next 30 years, more and more baby boomers will have the same challenges that I have. Here’s how I carry out “field research”:
• Research family artifacts, delving through family photographs and records and compiling several handmade books for the family
• Attend my county’s Council on Aging monthly meetings and other events on aging to learn more about the field and network with Board members and agency leaders.
• Participate in local events that benefit older adults and individuals with disabilities.
• Surf the Internet and talk with professionals in the field of caregiving.
• Explore housing alternatives, such as housing where the caregiver and cared-for live in the same community, with support from the community.
How Shall I Get There?
After identifying our strengths and researching (through surfing the Internet and exploring other media; visiting the library, bookstores and local agencies; setting up in-person meetings and attending events) topics that interest us, the third step is to set goals and action plans to carry out our goals.
For example, by building upon my motivated skills (writing, counseling, teaching, public speaking, learning), talents (generate ideas, develop network of contacts, inspire others), values (make the world a better place, help people) and interests (caregiving, wellness, and aging issues) and after conducting field research on family caregiving, I have chosen to conduct tele-interviews with career and wellness leaders, edit and write books, articles, and professional journals on career and caregiving (i.e., upcoming National Career Development Association monograph). In addition, I team up with colleagues to put together workshops for professional organizations on family career and caregiving issues.
If you are in or approaching a mid or later-life transition, you may choose a different route to manage your aging process, depending upon your strengths, motivations and situation. You may continue to flourish in a fast-paced environment or in a job with security and future pension. You may choose to work in a job you do not like out of necessity to support your family or prepare for your own later years. You may retire without care-giving responsibilities or have such huge responsibilities that you barely have a moment to read this article. You may own a home and choose to renovate it, rent it out, take in boarders or caregivers, or sell it and rent a smaller home on flat land near a town center or a walking path. You may be in the midst of job search or in a career or life transition. You may choose not to do anything at the moment.
Whatever our situation, it can be helpful to know what and why we are where we are in our career/life process and to keep open to alternative routes that we may choose to take in the future.
The process of managing career and life challenges does not always go smoothly. Aging baby boomers in the field of career development may be adept at keeping busy, but perhaps we need to reflect upon what we are so busy doing and where we are placing our priorities. The process of making career and life decisions that I have discussed - self-assessment (who am I), field research (where am I going), and goal-setting/implementation (how shall I get there) - often become blurred for aging baby boomers who may be involved in caring for a loved one (or even multiple generation of loved ones) and/or dealing with personal health and aging issues. It’s gentler to refer to “goals” as “intentions” and action plans as a “process in flow” (Tiedeman, 2008). Unexpected situations may place care for a loved one over a work commitment, as it did for me when I helped my mother recover from an eye operation rather than speak at a conference. Prioritizing your values and doing field research can help you make lifework decisions or choose not to make decisions at the current time.
Career, caregiving, and self-care have the same root: “carriara” – a road for carts. If we view our aging process and responsibilities as a work in process, as driving a cart or car along a windy road with alternative routes, then we become less focused on results and more on paying attention to each moment. Whether we are working, caring for loved ones, contributing to the community, and/ or filling other personal and professional needs, we can choose to manage our aging process gracefully and with compassion, both for ourselves and for others.
About the Author
Dr. Sally Gelardin, Ed.D. International and Multicultural Education, NCC, DCC, CDF eLearning Instructor, started the first job club for seniors in Marin County, California, where her oldest client (in her 80s) was the first person to secure a job. A year later, as Paralegal Career Counselor (University of San Francisco), she placed her oldest client (also in his 80s) as a paralegal in the Office of the Mayor of San Francisco. She was a founding member of the Spiritual Eldering movement in San Francisco, was interviewed on the topic of "Coping with Caregiving" on wsradio.com and wrote the introduction to "Aging-In-Place" (Christner-Lile, 2006). She is author of The Mother-Daughter Relationship (2004), Starting and Growing a Business in the New Economy (NCDA, 2007), and Career and Caregiving: Empowering the Shadow Workforce of Family Caregivers (NCDA, 2009). Gelardin was guest editor of the Winter 2007-2008 Career Planning and Adult Development Journal on “Making a Career of Counseling and Advising Caregivers.”