Why Caregiver Nation Must Focus On Nation-Building

At Seniorlink, we are celebrating National Family Caregivers Month this November with a new online group for caregivers called Caregiver Nation. To help launch this community we're sharing a guest post from Liz O'Donnell, founder of WorkingDaughter.com, a community for women balancing career and caregiving. She also runs Rent-A-Sister, a company that provides strategic, tactical and emotional support to family caregivers. We thank Liz for her support of our efforts to celebrate caregiving and for all she does as an advocate of caregivers across the country!

When I became a mother and added childcare to my list of responsibilities, I found a tribe to help me out. Friends and family who were also mothers gave me advice about what products to use, what pediatricians to see, and how to feed, bathe and care for my child. I had my daycare mom friends, my playground mom friends, my mommy & me music class friends. Motherhood takes a village and luckily I had mine.

However, when I became a caregiver and added eldercare to my list of responsibilities, I went it alone. It’s not that I didn’t need a village to help me care for my parents – I did – it’s that I didn’t know where to find support. I wasn’t alone in feeling alone; studies show many caregivers feel isolated and lonely, and those feelings can contribute to significant adverse health affects. Eventually, I cobbled my network together – the hospice nurse who encouraged me, the wellness director at the assisted living facility who gave me her personal cell phone number, my Dad’s primary care physician who really listened, and a few wise cousins I turned to for help.

With 66 million people caring for an aging or ill adult in the United States, family caregivers actually aren’t alone, they are members of caregiver nation.  And just as parents raising children rely on strong support networks, so too should people who are caring for parents. It’s time those of us who are part of, or support, caregivers, engage in some serious nation-building. According to The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy by Barry R. Weingast, nation-building is, “constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state…It aims at the unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run.” That is exactly what we need. Here’s why:

First, we need to construct a national identity. Despite the fact there are millions of caregivers in the United States, as a group, we are practically invisible. And yet, we are the family caregivers, the unpaid army that is providing for our oldest citizens. We are working daughters, providing billions of hours of unpaid labor and balancing eldercare and careers and kids. We are working sons. We are the men who care, and we represent forty percent of all family caregivers. Labels may feel like a superficial concern, but naming something is an important step in building a vocabulary and thereby starting a discussion. And we need a national dialogue about caregiving.

Next, we need unification. Again, we are not alone as caregivers, but too often we go through our caregiving experiences as individuals. Imagine our power and influence if we were unified as a group? Imagine if together we advocated for support – from our leaders in Washington, from our managers at work, from friends and family? Imagine if together we worked to have all 50 states sign the Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable (CARE) Act into law so that family caregivers could get adequate education and instruction on the medical tasks they need to perform? Imagine if together we advocated for affordable eldercare and backup eldercare services? And we need political stability. We need to know that Medicare and Medicaid will remain viable options to insure and protect the people we care for and that our Social Security benefits will be there when we need them.

Ultimately, we must be viable in the long run. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country, the AARP predicts we will soon have a shortage of paid caregivers. That means even more family caregivers will be called on to fill the gap. We must build the systems and structure to support family who steps up to care for family. . We must recruit allies to help – legislators, business leaders and healthcare professionals.

Start by identifying as a caregiver. Join an online care community. Contact your representatives in Washington and ask them what they are doing to support family caregivers. Ask your managers and HR representatives to examine your company’s caregiver-related benefits. And when you meet a fellow family caregiver, recruit them to the cause. The elderly you care for deserve no less. You deserve no less. Together, we are Caregiver Nation.

Liz O’Donnell is the founder of WorkingDaughter.com, a community for women balancing career and caregiving. She also runs Rent-A-Sister, a company that provides strategic, tactical and emotional support to family caregivers.