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Senior Moments: The isolated, often invisible, army of caregivers
The isolated, often invisible, army of caregivers
mary kenyon
Mary Kenyon

You shall be a caregiver. An hour, week, month or for years, there will come a time when you are thrown into a world of emotional strength, patience, attentiveness and dependability. 

You will be on-call, 24/7, in the spotlight, needed, wanted, faced with unimaginable challenges and exhausted. At first you will convince yourself that “you can do this.” After all, you have raised children and/or puppies, managed a household, cooked, cleaned and held down a full-time job (or two). Initial confidence turns quickly into too much to do, not enough time (for your list) and a level of anxiety and stress that is palpable. Despair and sadness turn into isolation – and all you wanted to do was help! Driving to doctors appointments, tracking medications, planning meals and grocery shopping, laundry and changing linens, hydrating and managing others who assist. I am worn out just thinking about it. 

More advanced care requires bathing and dressing – even more overwhelming. Many caregivers (63 percent) use their own funds to provide for care. Add repeated absences from work for caregiving, estimated to cost Colorado employers more than $546 million annually in lost productivity, and the effects of caregiving take their toll on all of us. 

There are several types of caregivers: paid or unpaid, family or friend, skilled or non-skilled, younger or older, short term or around-the-clock and respite care. 

The most prevalent type is an unpaid family caregiver with 17.7 million Americans caring for a family member, over the age of 65, with a significant impairment. That makes up 42 percent of the caregiving in this nation with 70 percent of those doing the caregiving between the ages of 50 and 64 years; the younger-older generations caring for the older-oldest generations. 

In Colorado, there are a reported 584,000 unpaid informal caregivers, according to information from the AARP Public Policy Institute. 

The average age of an informal caregiver is 50, and that person is likely balancing their full-time job with their caregiving responsibility. The millennial generation is not immune, their numbers growing (blame that on solo Baby Boomers), with 25 percent of the 40-million unpaid, informal and family caregivers in the U.S. falling into this age group, and online support groups and peer-to-peer resources for them on the rise. In rural areas, where many of us have settled or escaped, family caregiving is not an option. Many of our family members are thousands of miles away. 

As one of five children with 13 nieces and nephews, I am the only member of my family west of the Mississippi and they are too busy with their own lives to take off to help the geographic rebel.

As the number of older adults who need care is rapidly growing, how is the Roaring Fork Valley equipped to address this demand? Not well. Approximately 90 percent of our older population – 79 percent of which have lived here over 20 years – want to age in place, or at least in this community. 

Many want to stay in their own home, which is a good thing since the senior housing options – both independent and assisted – are limited as well. Many of the available options are cost-prohibitive, especially for a regional workforce that has not had the opportunity to accumulate retirement savings. In addition, unlike other parts of the country, there is an in-migration of older adults to Colorado so that seniors may be close to other family members. In the words of Alanis Morrisette, “Isn’t it ironic?”

Caring for the caregivers is also of vital importance. Respite care, defined as temporary relief from your duties as a caregiver, can come in many forms and for different durations from an hour to overnight and more. The provided break increases the stamina of the caregiver while offering much-deserved benefits to health, economic mobility and overall well-being. It is so important that there is a Colorado Respite Coalition, but don’t look for an office nearby. As with many caregiver services, their closest chapter is based in Grand Junction. In fact, if one searches for respite care within 60 miles of the Mid-Valley, nothing comes up. Not a good sign.

So what DO you do? Good question. Caregivers and interested residents of the valley will be coming together on June 11 at Glenwood Springs High School for the 11th Annual Caregiver Conference. Speakers will offer guidance and practical tools for both caregivers and those receiving care.

More than 30 resource providers, including Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, will be offering advice, connections and options. It's a start. I have heard two of the speakers – Megan Carnarius and Kim Mooney – on previous occasions, and am going back for more. Their guidance, direction and enlightenment (of the dos and don’ts) for navigating around the pitfalls of “just trying to help” are invaluable. It’s a free event including lunch, and a great networking opportunity for all of us caregivers – formal and informal. 

Learn lessons from the frontline. You owe it to yourself. If you have not been enlisted already, you know you shall be called upon to join the ranks of the few, the oh-so-brave, the caregivers!

In closing, my heartfelt appreciation goes to caregivers who tirelessly and humbly give their best and more. I continue to support efforts to bring attention and resources your way. There is a special place in heaven, or maybe just at the local spa, reserved for you.

To register for the Caregiver Conference on June 11, log on to 2019ColoradoCaregiverConference.eventbrite.com or call 970-665-0041.

Mary Kenyon has worked on the Pitkin County Aging Well Plan initiatives for the past five years. She is passionate about bringing attention to gaps in needed services in the Mid-Valley. Email her your service challenges at mary@impactmarketingaspen.com