Valuing the Invaluable – Me

My Mom and I after her recent surgery

I spent most of yesterday doing media interviews about a new report AARP released called, “Valuing the Invaluable” – which did just that…it put a dollar value on me. I know my parents feel I’m invaluable – but I didn’t realize anyone else did!

The value of over 40 billion hours of care that 62 million family members – like you and me – provided for our loved ones in 2009 came to $450 BILLION. That’s as much or more than the total sales of all three of the largest auto makers (Toyota, Ford and Daimler) COMBINED. Or the annual sales of WalMart. Put another way – it equals the GDP of a small European country such as Belgium. That’s up over 20% just since 2007 when the value was $375 Billion. Why? Increases in numbers of caregivers, hours of care and also the estimated value (from about $10 to $11/hr.)

Wow. Hearing that number felt very validating. I know that if my family were paying someone to provide the unpaid care I’m giving, it would be overwhelmingly expensive. And I can tell you the report provides a very conservative estimate – I can’t find paid help for my parents for less that $15/hr. In some parts of the country it’s much more.

And we caregivers are providing increasingly complex levels of care – we are key partners in the health care of our loved ones. It’s the “new normal”  that includes things like dealing with catheters, tube feeding and giving injections. I have given pre-op baths, helped with toileting, taken stool and urine samples, monitored vital statistics, and I manage multiple medications for each of my folks. My Mom came out of the hospital with a list of 18 medications – and that didn’t even include the vitamins and supplements! She couldn’t manage that, and quite frankly the nursing facility doesn’t manage it well either – that’s my job.

I’m also very close to the description of the average caregiver, who is a 49 year old woman (I’m 50 this year) and provides 20 hours of unpaid care (I give more like 30-40 hours of care at times). I know I have a lot of compadres out there, and somehow that makes me feel less alone with my challenges.

I had the pleasure of talking with so many radio and television broadcasters yesterday, and many had personal caregiving stories to share. But my favorite was a radio personality in Colorado Springs, CO. We talked for about 10 minutes about the challenges of caregiving – finances, health, social isolation, work…and he was going down a gloom and doom path.

I told him that, yes, there are challenges and what we caregivers are doing is worth billions and should be supported. But in the end there is also a lot of joy for me and for my parents. I have this special time with them when they need me the most. Amidst the health crises and daily tasks, quality of life is just as important as health care. So I try to incorporate fun into our time together – whether its taking a walk, watching a movie, playing a game or going out for my Dad’s favorite fast food.

The broadcaster paused and acknowledged it was true. He spent 3 years caregiving for his mother, and he said he would never have gotten to know her in the special way he did if not for that time with her. He realized that he also received some gifts during his caregiving time.

$450 billion in value to our family members and our country? Absolutely and we should be valued and given the support, preparation, training and respite we need to keep going.

Can we place a value on the way our caregivng experience enriches our lives? I think it is, in some ways, just as invaluable.