By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

The movie “Wonder Woman” is all the buzz these days. (Spoiler alert on the major themes of the film.) Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, is like many of us. Her life was pretty perfect – it doesn’t hurt that she is the daughter of Zeus and lived on Paradise Island with strong women to support her. When she discovers the perils facing the outside world in the form of World War I, she wonders who she would be if she didn’t answer the call for help. We all hear that call. Like so many of us caregivers, she jumped in naively believing that she could fix everything.

Caregivers / Wonder Woman have the best of intentions. We just want to help. But the complexity of life hits us. Some people deserve help, but perhaps not everyone. Many people are caring for relatives who were abusive, dysfunctional, absent, overbearing and who give nothing.

Do they deserve the sacrifices made on their behalf to care for them?

In the movie, Diana comes to realize that people are flawed and imperfect. But each of them embodies the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad. She chooses to help mankind realize their potential and give them their best chance of living a good life.

Our caregiving journey is much like this. We often get into caregiving without giving it much serious thought of where it will take us. Along the way, we realize how overwhelming this experience can be. We may be surprised about some of the things we find out about our loved ones who we thought we knew. It is not all rainbows and butterflies. But we don’t give up.

We are changed by the caregiving experience. We lose some of our innocence about people and institutions we thought we could rely on like medicine, hospitals and caring professionals. We can’t necessarily save the person we’re caring for no matter how hard we try. We experience loss, grief, and so many other emotions.

Like Wonder Woman, we can’t go back to our old lives. We may retreat to things we know and that bring us comfort.

Wonder is a key ingredient to caregiving. Wondering what we should do. Being in awe of the love we feel for our parents, spouse or children. Life is unscripted and it unfolds before us – surprising us. We are amazed at the strengths we find insides ourselves, and how much we can bear. At the end of the day, women (and men) wonder how they did it – and many shake their heads knowing they would do it all again if they heard the call for help.

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

By Dr. Jamie Huysman
LCSW, CFT

The rate of anxiety and depression, in boomers, seniors, and particularly caregivers, has gone undetected and is often ignored for far too long. Depression seems to be running rampant in society and the fact is that caregivers of the chronically ill are prone to grief and depression as a natural part of that journey. Current statistics support this. Grieving about the person they care for and the promise of an unknown future may lead to sleeplessness, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, fatigue, and many more.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of depression and find support for those feelings. You’re not crazy, you’re human. We all have days when we don’t feel our best — that’s normal. But when days turn into weeks and months of doom and gloom, feeling overwhelmed and isolated, things will not get better. They will get worse. Give yourself permission to seek help. No one needs to live with anxiety or clinical depression; you do have a choice. You can do something about it. We have come far in dealing with it pharmaceutically (where necessary), psychosocially and through integrative medical practices.

See your doctor or take advantage of a free in person or online screening at HelpYourselfHelpOthers.org.

Take some O2 and reclaim your spirit—you’re worth it. When you take care of your emotional health, you become an example of conscious self-care. As a caregiver, you have people depending on you, so you need to be able to depend on yourself. If no one told you they loved you today, I do!

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a Vulcan? Yes, I am talking about Mr. Spock’s planet of origin from the Star Trek series. I’ve been watching the entire The Big Bang series with my son the past few months, and they talk about Mr. Spock a lot. They even changed the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock. Don’t ask.

In any case, it has occurred to me that being a green-blooded Vulcan would absolutely benefit caregiving situations.

Logic: Vulcans don’t have human emotions that cloud clear-thinking and reason. It must be nice to be able to stand back, and make decisions that aren’t weighted with emotional baggage. Just the facts ma’am and I don’t care that you never loved me. For a Vulcan, anything less than the best decisions wouldn’t be logical.

No human emotions: The Vulcans can be a bit snooty on this, because emotions are sign of weakness and being less evolved. As a Vulcan, we caregivers wouldn’t have to carry around guilt, anger, fear, stress, depression and grief. What a relief. But we all know that love, laughter, and tenderness that are emotions that put us on the plus side of the caregiving experience. Perhaps we should agree to be like Mr. Spock on this one: half Vulcan and half human. Caregivers would have the best of both worlds if we only focused on the positive.

Vulcan nerve pinch (also known as the Vulcan death grip): I want this ability! It’s not really a death grip – it just puts people to sleep. If other relatives with all of their “helpful” advice or professionals who think I ask too many questions are giving me a hard time, I’d just pinch their neck, put them to sleep for a while, and walk over them to get some ice cream. Sweet. I’d also use it for those nights my loved one is up and about in the wee hours. A good night’s sleep is a thing of beauty.

Vulcan Mind Meld: Another must-have caregiver talent. Vulcans can put their hands on the face of someone else, say “my mind to your mind,” and they can read the other’s person’s thoughts. If you didn’t understand the doctor’s instructions, mind meld. If your spouse is still a complete mystery to you, mind meld. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s and you don’t know what they are saying, mind meld – but with extreme caution. (Many of us know what happened to Captain Picard and Spock’s dad who had Alzheimer’s.)

Super Strength: Vulcans are as strong as four men or ten men or something like that. Super strength is not only terrific for taking out the garbage, sweeping under automobiles, and getting Uncle Joe in the bathtub, we would still have energy left at the end of the day.

Vulcans work for the higher good of the many, not just the few or the one. They’re excellent with science and medicine, and a bonus on any landing party. Things just seem to be less complicated without all those pesky emotions. And they make loyal friends.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed being a caregiver, put on your Mr. Spock pointy ears and Starfleet shirt. Think clearly and recognize that negative emotions aren’t helping. Meld your mind to your loved one and see through his/her eyes. Put or visualize yourself putting a nerve pinch on those who are taking your energy and aren’t part of the solution. Be strong – and live long and prosper.

Carol Zernial is Executive Director of the nonprofit WellMed Charitable Foundation. A noted gerontologist, Ms. Zernial also serves as Chair of the National Council on Aging Board of Directors.

Family caregiving is unpaid care performed by family members and friends. It represents 90% of the long-term care in this country. In the United States, 18% of the population — or 43 million adults — care for an adult or child. Caregiving has been a mainstream part of life, but it is just now gaining visibility among health care professionals and elected officials.

In October 2016, Lucy Barylak and Nancy Guberman released Beyond Recognition – Caregiving & Human Rights in Canada: A Policy Brief, raising questions about treatment of family caregivers in Canada compared to the Universal Declaration of Human rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948.

Caregiver rights are not the same thing as human rights. The Caregiver Bill of Rights is an important first step in recognizing that caregivers have individual needs. It is time that we in the United States ask if the higher standard of basic human rights is being upheld for family caregivers.

Key human rights documents in the United States include:

  • Declaration of Independence
  • Constitution of the United States
  • The Bill of Rights
  • Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution
  • Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Just as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed in our founding documents, the countries of the world under the U.N. declared that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 22 of the Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Do U.S. family caregivers really enjoy these rights today? Almost 40% of caregivers quit their jobs to provide care, or due to lack of job flexibility. Holding a job becomes difficult when caregiving stretches five to ten years, and becomes more demanding.

Article 24 states that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, yet 60% of family caregivers of adults are working full or part-time, and have to provide up to 62 hours of caregiving each week.

Article 25 states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family . . . or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. AARP reports nearly  70% of family caregivers use their own money to care for loved ones. Many feel financially strained. Caregivers can spend almost half their income on expenses related to care of their loved one. MetLife estimates a caregiver who leaves the work force loses an average of $303,800 in wages and retirement.

Today, the primary mechanism for the protection of family caregivers is the Family Medical Leave Act. It provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of immediate family members, but 88% of workers aren’t covered under the law, and working caregivers can’t afford time off with no pay.

Tax credits to offset long-term care expenses proposed as part of the Act fall short. The credit of up to $3,000 is less than the average of $5,000 a caregiver spends, and it requires some sort of income.

If we dig into the root cause of the human rights issues related to caregiving, we find that Americans lack universal health care coverage. Because many Americans have to wait for coverage until age 65 under Medicare, most adults reach old age in poorer health than necessary. We also lack a comprehensive system of long-term services and supports. Currently, our system is basically 100% private pay or 100% public pay. Individuals are required to spend down to poverty, often pulling the caregiving family down with it.

For the first time in history, we have an aging boom combined with a longevity boom. Unfortunately, age is the single biggest risk factor for a myriad of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. The 5.5 million people with that disease today will ultimately grow to 16 million by 2050. There is no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. This disease alone could overwhelm the fragile system of family caregiving. At a time when more caregivers than ever will be needed, fewer will be available due to the long-term impact of lower birth rates in the United States.

As we move ahead, it is important to reframe caregiving in the U.S. as a human rights issue. We must evaluate if proposed policies for health and human services go far enough to protect the right to work, right to leisure and right to a standard of living. Most Americans are proud to have a role in returning the care that parents once provided to them. However, caregivers should not be expected to jeopardize their health, the welfare of their families, or their own solvency in old age.

Carol Zernial is executive director of the non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation, which offers complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Learn more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Dr, Jamie Huysman
LCSW, CFT

Recently, the National Institute The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) reported that the most diagnosed behavioral health issue is anxiety.

Family caregivers surely know all about anxiety. For many it began with a loved one’s diagnosis or the reality that an aging parent can no longer live alone and care for themselves. Caregivers experience anxiety due to changes occurring at a rate that’s difficult to plan for and keep up with which can virtually overwhelm the most even-tempered among us.

The creation of “A Happy Place” provides a respite from tension and turmoil. It’s a place that is yours alone, where you can feel safe and happy. And you can stay for as long as you want to. A happy place can be a memory, an emotion evoked by an image, or a place and time you make up all on your own. Happiness, after all is totally subjective.

I am reminded of a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. It’s called “A Story of Peace” and I’d like to share it with you:

Many years ago, there was a good King who offered a prize to the artist who could paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. When the King finished viewing all the pictures there were two he really liked and he had to choose between them. 

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace. 

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell, in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. 

But, when the King looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the middle of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest … in perfect peace. 

The King chose the second picture and rewarded the artist with the prize. 

He declared his choice this way: “Because,” explained the King, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or difficult work. Peace means to be surrounded by all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”

Here’s to your peace and happiness … Take your oxygen first!