Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

As I sat at a stop light recently, I saw two young people crossing in front of me. The older sister casually and automatically draped her arm around her little brother. She smiled and kept talking with him, not missing a beat. I could see that her arm was there for protection, and that she had unconsciously positioned herself to guide him and be able to help him should the need arise.

A few days later, I watched out the window as my husband and his younger brother, both now with gray hair, walked shoulder to shoulder to look at my brother-in-law’s new truck. My husband still looks out for his younger siblings, and was going to both admire and inspect the new vehicle.

There was a story in the newspaper several years ago about four siblings who ranged in age from their late nineties to over 100. The youngest sister, who was around 97, was complaining that her other sister, at 102, thought she still had the right to boss her around. She sighed with exasperation that the oldest was trying to tell her what kind of walker to purchase. She was told to get the kind with the seat that flips down in case you get tired and need to sit and rest before walking further.

We often think of caregivers as husbands and wives, or mother and fathers with their children. But I think back now of my own relatives who have taken on the role of caregiver for one or more of their siblings. It is a natural evolution. It starts when we’re young and our parents tell the older children to look after their brothers and sisters. It often survives through the fights, teenage angst, and separation that come with education, work, relationships, marriage and children of our own.

We probably still don’t like being bossed around by our brothers and sisters. But there’s something comforting about the shared life experiences, the closer ages, and the fact that they still care enough to tell us what to do. In our later years, we reach a point when our parents and their relatives are gone, and the younger generation is moving on with their own lives. The arm of a brother or a sister to help us cross one of life’s roads when we are vulnerable could be a welcome weight on our shoulders after all.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

In late January, the President signed the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act into law. The new law requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop, maintain and update a strategy to recognize and support family caregivers.

As Winnie the Pooh once said, “If anyone would like to applaud, now is the time.”

One of the first steps in what will be an 18-month process is to form an advisory council comprised of family caregivers, older adults, veterans, persons with disabilities, experts in long-term services and support, and other stakeholders. The goal is to expand the practice and support of person- and family-centered care in all health and service settings. They will look at how we determine caregiver needs and plan ahead for critical moments such as the moving from a hospital back to home or to a facility, which will require the input and consideration of both the caregiver and the person receiving care.

It will also address the financial toll on caregivers and workplace issues that prevent many family caregivers from continuing to work. Anyone who stops working to care for an older loved one is giving up more than $300,000 in lost wages and Social Security benefits. Caregivers who need to work need flexibility to schedule doctors’ appointments, to allow for days in the home when nothing is going right, and a schedule that is constantly changing. Information, education, respite options and coordination of care are all part of an initial strategy.

For those of us who are caregivers and work with caregivers, it feels like we finally came above ground into the light. But as anyone who has read the news lately, there are many, many, many competing priorities on the national stage. How do we ensure that caregiving issues are heard?

Family caregivers represent a staggering 25 percent of the population, so there is no reason we should be in the back of the stage or upstaged by other groups. If we truly harnessed the power of our voices, we would rise above the din and noise of so many other issues. Elected officials have caregiving situations in their own families. Men and women of every race and color have caregiving issues. Caregiving is the great equalizer, impacting people of all incomes and all ages.

We have an opportunity to shape the conversation on who will take care of our families and us, who will be there when dementia and Alzheimer’s strike, and what will happen to 74 million boomers as they grow older.

So clear your throats and take your places everyone: It’s show time!

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.