My mother recently passed away. This is the common ending of so many caregiving journeys. For us, it was six years after the official Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But it could have been cancer, end-stage renal disease, heart failure, pneumonia, or a number of other conditions that prompt people to pick up the mantle of caregiving.

I was standing in line at the busy Starbucks at the airport to go home. I felt on edge with the pushing of caffeine-craving people with their luggage, the overly loud voice of the woman on her cell phone behind me strategizing about the latest office brouhaha, and the incessant questions of the guy in front of me who wanted to know something about every pastry in the case.

And then it all fell away: the noise and the people. Because it wasn’t important. I was ultimately going to get my coffee and make my flight. And I thought about how helpful this ability to let go of unimportant annoyances would be for caregivers every day. Why did I save my hidden superpower until the end?

It now seems that caregiving built layers around me, like an onion or flower bud, that it is time to shed. At the center is me as I really am. Here, too, is my mother as she really was, without the disease. The next layers are the family and friends who have been on the journey with us. We are surrounded by the layer of the illness.

The next layers are the doctors, nurses and professionals who tried to help us along the way. There are the direct care workers from the assisted living facilities and those who came to our home. There are the medications, medical supplies, books and stuff we used along the way.

So now we don’t need these things or many of the people, and we will let them go. We will be forever grateful to the people who gave my mother the same love and care that we wanted to give her every day. And death has finally gotten rid of the illness that surrounded us.

After removing this layer of disease, we are back to just us: the family and friends. At the center is my mom as she always was before she was sick and will always be in my heart. And me – the person I always was and now the person I want to become in the future. Because I am different now, as we all are after this journey: I was a caregiver.

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.

Carol-PR-Photo-10-1-11-SMALLERMany of us will rely on the services of a paid caregiver at some point during our caregiving journey. These are individuals hired to come to our homes and provide light housekeeping and personal care services for our loved ones. We might hire them directly or find them through a home health agency. They are certified nursing assistants who work in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. They may provide hospice services to those in the final stages of life.

We entrust these paid direct care workers with the most important people in our lives: our mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandmothers and grandfathers, and other family members who are ill, fragile, or have a disability or special needs.

A Huffington Post article stated that despite decades of advocacy by direct care workers themselves, care work is still seen by too many Americans as somehow “less than” other forms of work. A board member from the Direct Care Alliance said, “Direct care work is expected but not respected.”

Almost half of all direct care workers rely on public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. And 89% of them are women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal care aides are paid as low as $16,240 per year. The lows for home health aides averaged less than $16,410 per year, or $7.89 per hour. For pay that is barely above minimum wage, they are asked to care for their own families as well as ours.

A trade association calls direct care work back breaking and mentally heart-breaking.

We have to start investing in what Caring Across Generations calls our “Care Force.” The Care Force includes unpaid family caregivers like those of us who need Social Security to recognize our quarters of work in the home, taking care of our loved ones. Or tax breaks for the more than $5,000 a year that family caregivers contribute out of our own pockets.

It also includes paid direct care workers who are the working poor. This matters to us and our loved ones, because the true cost of low pay is high turnover, inability to attract people who want to do this labor of love, and a future where there simply won’t be enough family caregivers or paid caregivers for all of us who will need care.

Caregiving in this country matters. The people who need care matter. It is time to put our heads and voices together to change conditions that don’t reflect the importance of this work that for many of us is a sacred task.

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