Sometimes in life, it's comforting to hear we're not alone. When it comes to caregiving, it's easy to feel very alone.
I have firsthand experience with caregiving these days. I've recently returned to Indiana to my hometown to help my family - we're stretched thin as we cope with my grandparents' illnesses. Last Christmas, when my grandpa was not severely ill with pneumonia, seems like ages ago. I want to go back four months and freeze that moment of taking funny pictures with my grandpa and brother next to the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. I want to see the energetic 87-year-old we know so well working out in his yard or driving a school bus like he did not too long ago. I've always pictured my grandfather living past 100.
He certainly has the will for it.
We can't always predict what havoc illness wreaks on us. I know it would be nice if we had ultimate control over our bodies. We do in terms of fitness and healthy eating, which studies prove help us live longer. But pneumonia is sneaky. I know because I suffered through it last June. It affects approximately 450 million people, and ends in about 4 million deaths a year. Pneumonia is nothing to play around with or discount. And, once we're sick with one thing and the immune system is weak, other conditions can move in like hoarders stashing all their bad stuff in the your body like it's their spare bedroom.
Now there's a visual.
Because life is really good at throwing us several curve balls at once, we are also caregiving for my stepgrandmother, Becky, who has Alzheimer's. This common form of dementia has no cure and is devastating to the people who have it and their loved ones who care for them.
According to a prevalence study in 2006, Alzheimer's is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050.
These statistics are troubling because our aging population of people 65 and older will more than double between the years 2000 and 2030, increasing to 71.5 million from 35.1 million just a decade ago. In short, we are all in this together.
We are not alone.
It's estimated that 43.5 million adult family caregivers care for someone 50 years or older, and 14.9 million care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients. My family is in that 14.9 million. We hold back the tears as we tend to the daily care of the woman who gave me a Cabbage Patch Kid that looked just like me for Christmas when I was a little girl. The emotions are hard to describe, but I would liken them to a very sad version of "Groundhog Day."
If only Bill Murray were here.
I have always looked up to my grandparents. They are all-American, hard-working folks. They have supported me all my years growing up as an Indiana girl. When I finished college at Purdue, they came up for graduation weekend and went out with all my friends to celebrate. Both were boogying down on the dance floor at the bar T.A. Tom's, which was later torn down to make room for a parking garage.
That dance party to celebrate my graduation is a memory I'll forever hold in my heart.
When I was about 12 or 13, they took me and my stepcousin Sarah, who was just a little girl then, to Opryland and Dollywood on vacation. Sarah died in a car accident the year I moved out to Colorado, so I will always cherish that memory, too.
There are just too many to list.
My grandpa Bud is our patriarch, the man we want to live forever. He is ornery - that's where I get it - and smart as a whip, as they say out here in the Midwest. He is the kind of man who has always done the right thing and made smart decisions for his family.
We would all feel lost without him.
And Becky and Bud, they have a love that will transcend their life here on Earth. They lost their first spouses to heart attack and cancer, respectively. They found each other more than 35 years ago when their grief was too much to face alone. She asks for him constantly as he tries to heal in the critical care unit of the hospital. She tells us how much she loves him. She asks that they don't take him away from us.
We tell her we feel the same.
I imagine her despair runs extremely deep in her heart as his wife of more than three decades. That is a special bond. As family, we are all connected to each other in that way. We desperately want him home in his recliner, too.
And we are not alone.
- April E. Clark is humbled by her mother's caregiving touch. She would like to thank the staff at Indiana University Health - Methodist Hospital for their ongoing care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.