Never underestimate the strength of a woman, especially if she’s a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Recent studies reveal that of the 15.9 million family and friends providing 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, over two-thirds are women. Being a caregiver isn’t an easy job, and it can take a serious toll. Nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high.
These caregivers are daughters, wives, mothers, co-workers, friends and neighbors. They’re all part of an invisible army who work hard each day to manage their everyday lives with the additional duties that come with caregiving. If you look closely, you can see them everywhere you go. They’re at the grocery store picking up their mom’s groceries and medications. They’re at the doctor’s office with their dad. They’re helping their loved ones get dressed, or reassuring them when they’re feeling confused.
Through their strength, patience and love, these caregivers are the real everyday Alzheimer’s heroes. My sister Cathy Lonergan Mara is one of them. As the oldest daughter in our family of 13 kids, Cathy got an early start in caregiving. Throughout my childhood, she helped take care of me and many of my siblings. During our mother’s 8years with Alzheimer’s, Cathy was increasingly involved in our mom’s care. She took on this role in addition to being a mom of seven and working full-time. When I talked to Cathy about being an “everyday Alzheimer’s hero,” she was incredibly modest.
“I do not personally consider myself a hero,” she said. “I believe that what our family did was heroic.”
As a family, we all had a part in our mom’s care, but Cathy’s role was the glue that kept things together, especially during the tough times. At family meetings, we’d proactively discuss Mom’s care and make an action plan for different phases. Early on, we could manage Mom’s care amongst all of us, but as her illness progressed, we hired part-time help and then eventually a live-in caregiver. Each time we thought we had a plan for our mom, things changed. Over the years, our family changed, too. Babies were born, some sibling moved closer, others moved away, and some went back to work full-time. With each change, we had to adapt. Yet through all of the changes, Cathy was the consistent part of mom’s care. Living 10 minutes away, Cathy would be there at a moment’s notice. She’d visit several times a week to make sure everything was good, and drop everything if something happened to Mom.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost our mom, yet through memories and love, she’s remains part of us each day. As Cathy recalls, “It was hard to watch Mom decline, but it was truly a gift that she remained sweet and loving. Keeping her in her home, allowed her children and grandchildren to visit at any time and we could host holiday gatherings, all of which she enjoyed. That last Thanksgiving, when she opened her eyes at the end of the day and saw her children and grandchildren—how amazing was that!” Some memories can connect families long after a loved one dies.
With November recognized as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, we need to recognize all caregivers, the ultimate everyday Alzheimer’s heroes. Thank you to all the 15.9 million caregivers, and a special thank you to Cathy Lonergan Mara!