On the Shoulders of Giants

Caregiving – and the challenges faced by caregivers – is now so widely recognized that it’s easy to forget that only 5-10 years ago the biggest challenge for those of us in the industry advocating for help was how to get caregivers to simply self-identify.  People viewed their caregiving challenges in terms of their responsibility as a spouse, sibling, parent, or friend. Rarely as a member of a very large club consisting of 65 million other members!

There are many reasons for this cultural shift.  Chief among the explanations is the realization in the corporate world that the aging baby boomers, one of the largest and highest income earning demographic subsets, was coming “of age”, sandwiched between providing caregiving for their elderly parents, yet still caring for their own children. And in this time of healthcare reform, there is the looming “silver tsunami”, when these boomers will require significant caregiving themselves.  Every day 10,000 boomers turn 65 years old, and there’ll be only about one-tenth as many younger citizens to care for them as there were twenty years ago.

But cultural changes rarely occur without considerable effort from a considerable number of people, and significant effort from a few significant people. One such significant person is Suzanne Mintz, who co-founded the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA) with her friend Cynthia Fowler in 1993.  At that time, there was little awareness of the difficulties and struggles of family caregivers.  Through her work with healthcare professionals, public policy makers, and the media, she has almost single-handedly transformed the way our country now views family caregiving.  Suzanne has elevated caregiving from her personal experience caring for her husband with multiple sclerosis to one of the most important healthcare issues of our time, affecting people across the entire lifespan.

Last week, broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff, herself a longtime caregiver, presided as Master of Ceremonies at the signature NFCA event Creating the Voice:  A Celebration of Family Caregiving to highlight those who give family caregiving its voice.  The inaugural Hands-On Help Awards were presented to honor “those individuals and institutions who have worked so hard to support family caregivers and caregiving issues.”  Suzanne Mintz was honored for her lifetime work as she transitions to a new role at NFCA.  Also honored were the Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program and its Secretary, the Honorable Eric K. Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff of the United States Army, for leadership in “successfully launching a complex and comprehensive program to support, train and assist the family caregivers of the warriors who have defended our nation.” A third award was presented to ReACT (Respect a Caregiver’s Time), a coalition of corporations and organizations dedicated to addressing the challenges faced by employee caregivers and reducing the impact on the companies that employ them.  Representatives of Pfizer received the award on behalf of many other corporations and organizations including CBS, AARP, Aetna, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, Microsoft, National Alliance for Caregiving, and Alzheimer’s Association.

I have been on the Board of Directors of NFCA for almost seven years and have had the privilege of watching Suzanne Mintz speak out eloquently and tirelessly on behalf of the nation’s family caregivers.  Visit www.thefamilycaregiver.org to learn how NFCA and Suzanne Mintz have provided the authentic voice for family caregivers, helping raise awareness of caregiving to the top of our nation’s healthcare issues.

Have you been a caregiver helped by NFCA, Veterans Affairs, or an enlightened employer? Please share your story in the comments below.

Hal Chapel is CEO and Co-Founder of Lotsa Helping Hands.