My family is rare—we are a house divided when it comes to college basketball in North Carolina. We are part Duke and part Carolina. But when I see this particular photo I see myself in the sandwich generation. Mom moved closer to me so I could better attend to her needs. I visited almost daily for seven years, usually after dropping my kids off or before picking them up from school. My mother died last year, and my kids are now driving themselves to and from school. But this is one of those moments that I captured some joy in caregiving.

I feel a kindred spirit with the more than 34 million individuals who provided unpaid care to an older adult in the last 12 months. But one thing I learned is that there is a difference in caregiving with your head and with your heart.

Through school and work experiences, I gained a great deal of knowledge about diseases, disabilities, and issues affecting aging adults. I taught classes on supporting adults with dementia and proper ways to lift or transfer an individual. I worked with families in making difficult decisions about the care of a loved one. I even observed my mother take care of her mother, and over the years heard her express her regrets. So I thought my toolbox was pretty full and that caregiving for my mother, when the time came, would be relatively straightforward. But life doesn’t always happen as it says in the textbook. I was overwhelmed with the emotional aspects of caregiving, what I call caregiving from the heart. And in the many situations where my children and my mother all needed my time and attention, who do I put first that day? As well prepared as I thought I was, after all I did know about aging and the aging system more than the average person, I was brought to my knees by the rollercoaster ride.

Like me, you and our dedicated network of volunteers are caregivers. Sometimes we are caregivers for the caregivers. And it’s hard work. Some days you feel like a firefighter, addressing one “crisis” after the next. But we keep doing the best we can, one day at a time. Then there are days full of both big and small highs when we are rewarded for our efforts. Maybe it is as simple as the smile of a new participant when he or she makes a connection with a fellow classmate or tells you, “My favorite day of the week is when I come to Shepherd’s Center.” Maybe it’s the sincere appreciation expressed for help cleaning and repairing gutters, which means the older adult can continue living in their home or can better afford next month’s medications.

Some think of caregiving as a “duty,” a moral obligation. Acting from a sense of duty is quite noble. I believe many volunteers are called to this work out of a sense of duty. Others think of caregiving, especially for a loved one, as a privilege. It can bond people in ways that otherwise might not happen. There are times it brings us joy despite the circumstance.

Duty or privilege? I don’t believe it is one or the other, it’s “and both.” My hope is that we can celebrate all caregivers while we practice duty and recognize the privilege it is to work alongside so many people with so many different life experiences. 

Sarah Cheney

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