The poet, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” As caregivers and persons receiving care, many of us wrestle with the notion that we may become dependent on others. We find ourselves struggling mightily against acknowledging that we need help. But John Donne’s words remind us that perhaps we were never intended to be independent of other people. Choosing to stand alone, come what may, runs counter to the reality of being human.

I find comfort in John Donne’s words. If one person needs assistance then it’s okay for any person to need assistance. The ideal of independence is an illusion. But do I have the luxury of feeling comforted, because I haven’t reached the point where I am dependent on others?

For years as a professional in the field of aging, I have wondered how we make it okay to accept help. How do we make it okay for caregivers to get the help they need over the long run? How do we make it okay for older persons and persons with disabilities to receive assistance? Finally, how do we make it okay for ourselves?

I recently had the privilege of seeing Richard Turner, the self-described “card mechanic” and one of the world’s greatest card trick artists. He performed at a local charity event with amazing card tricks that were invisible to the eye as they were projected on large screen monitors around the room. The 2017 documentary titled “Dealt” follows him for a year as he is nominated for the Close-Up Magician of the Year Award from the Academy of Magical Arts. Interestingly, what Richard Turner might tell you is the least important aspect of his life, and his accomplishments, is that he is completely blind.

Richard Turner has attempted to live his entire life as if he is not blind. That means that he didn’t learn braille, didn’t use a cane or a seeing-eye dog, and relies on family members to support his independence in a manner that makes his blindness almost invisible.

Richard’s younger sister suffers from the same rare eye disease and is also blind. His influence on her was strong growing up, so she lives most of her life without adaptive equipment just like him. The turning point of the story (spoiler alert) comes when she decides to get help, to use a cane and a seeing-eye dog. She then discovers that being willing to let others see that she is blind gives her greater freedom than she has ever experienced.

Richard slowly realizes that he might be placing a greater burden on his wife and son, because he doesn’t accept traditional tools for the blind. His sister becomes a mentor to him, and he too begins to embrace his own blindness.  Like John Donne, Richard discovers that he is not an island separate from his blindness, but that it is a part of him that has always influenced and shaped him – and perhaps even made him the great card magician that he is today.

In the end, I think that Richard gives me the answer for which I have been seeking – an answer that he has taken his entire life to find:  How do we make it okay for ourselves and others to give and accept assistance? Richard states, “Something I’ve learned is to accept your weaknesses and to accept help from others. We all have weaknesses. When you accept that, then you can move on with your life. Believe you are special. You have to love yourself.”

In accepting our weaknesses, we give power to our strengths and to those around us who can help do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Two heads are better than one, and an extra set of hands, eyes, ears and legs may do the trick. With the support we need, we can move our focus to the next thing we wish to accomplish. Perhaps accepting help is really not a trick after all; it’s the magic that changes everything.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and immediate past 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 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.