Heroes in the Shadows: Family Caregivers Keep Our Nation Strong

My work at SPA Day events and on my book, Wounded Warrior, Wounded Wife, has connected me to some seriously tough, courageous, and admirably selfless caregivers. In my nine years working with the wives and spouses of wounded war veterans, I've come to admire the way these individuals persevere in the face of obstacles and meet struggle with strength. So I was pleased when I read Ann Brenoff's recent piece for the Huffington Post titled, “Why Family Caregivers Are This Nation’s Unsung Heroes.” Brenoff's husband experienced unexpected kidney issues earlier this year. She describes the day he collapsed as, “my inglorious initiation into the ranks of the nation’s 34 million unpaid family caregivers.”

And actually, her statistics are a little outdated. According to Caregiver.org, there are currently 43.5 MILLION unpaid family caregivers in the United States alone.

Just think about that for a moment. 43.5 million people spend a huge portion of their time and energy helping a sick or injured loved one with grooming, daily living, or medical tasks. 43.5 million people support the doctors, nurses, and therapists who treat their loved ones by keeping them on track, healthy, and protected. 43.5 million people do this difficult, taxing, complex work for free.

So I couldn't agree more with Brenoff's assessment that America's caregivers are our unsung heroes. She says, “We live in a system where the caregiving responsibilities that once fell squarely in the realm of nurses and professionals are now thrust on unwitting spouses and adult children with absolutely no consideration of the impact on their well-being ― or even the extent of their ability to perform these tasks.” My experiences interviewing wives for my book supports this statement. So many caregivers feel ill-equipped to take on these weighty responsibilities. But they do it anyway. Because they must, and because no one else will.

Brenoff also points out that many caregivers must quit their day jobs to help their loved ones full-time. Not only does this create an immediate financial burden for families, but also it means caregivers will have a tougher time come retirement. Less money goes into Social Security for them to withdraw at the end of their careers, and less goes into 401Ks and IRAs. Many of these families are already struggling to make ends meet, covering some medications and equipment out of pocket, battling with insurance companies or the VA over costs. Their financial futures can seem daunting and dim.

I created SPA Day to give military family caregivers a break. A little time away from their duties, and a breather from the endless tasks and stress of supporting a disabled spouse. But this event is kept intentionally small, and also tailored to the wives of wounded war veterans. We cannot offer solace to all 43.5 million American caregivers, much as I wish we could.

November is National Family Caregivers Month. I hope you'll take time this month to reach out to the caregivers you know. Offer them help with errands, give a free night of babysitting so they can relax a bit, remind them that you're always there to listen. Family caregivers bear a heavy burden. Anything we can do to lighten that load will be met with relieved gratitude.