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Yount: The need for care giving will increase

August 01, 2010|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

Commentary

Last January I took on the role of full-time caregiver for my wife as she convalesced from open-heart surgery. With Americans living longer, more and more of us will be required to give, or receive, personal care. Although there is no formal preparation to become an effective caregiver, there is plenty of room to exercise skills we acquired earlier in life.

Unlike many occupations, care giving is a labor of love, not least because it is usually a loved-one who needs our attention.

By the time my wife reached the age of eligibility for Medicare, a heart condition she had borne since childhood had worsened to the point where she needed open-heart surgery and a delicate valve repair. Dr. David Adams of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, honored as the American Heart Association's surgeon of 2009, agreed to operate.

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It is now six months later. The surgery was successful, but Becky's convalescence could extend until the end of the year. Until then, she is largely housebound. She sleeps long hours, night and day. I routinely follow her up stairs lest she lose her balance. Frankly, much of my care giving consists simply of fetching things for her.

Fortunately, I was the only child of two working parents, so I'm comfortable shopping, cleaning, ironing, and caring for our pets. I'm less adept in the kitchen, and we fast tired of TV dinners. Now Becky cooks in quantity so we have leftovers.

Milt Freudenheim, writing in The New York Times, warns that the nation's seniors already require lots of personal care giving, but demand will increase. Within 20 years 70 million Americans will have turned 65 years of age. Americans 85 and older are already the nation's fastest growing population.

Dr. Judith Salerno, executive officer of the Institute of Medicine in Washington, told Freudenheim that "all the most common causes of death and illness and functional impairment in the general population are diseases of aging."

We can't count on spouses and children to step up to serve as caregivers for aging family members. Building more hospitals and nursing homes will not meet the demand for care. We will need professional caregivers to serve the elderly in their homes.

"In every area of aging -- education, clinical care, research -- people just don't realize how dire the situation is," Dr. David Reuben, chief of the geriatrics division of UCLA's School of Medicine, told Freudenheim.

Individuals who benefit from caregivers are seldom in a position to reciprocate. As it happens, I have a heart condition from childhood that, in time, will call for open-heart surgery like Becky's. She has already promised to be there for me.

Care giving is arguably the purest example of practical Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth assured his followers that, when they fed and clothed the hungry, visited the lonely, satisfied the thirsty, and cared for the sick, "you did it for me" (Matthew 25:40). As a nation we will need more such Good Samaritans.

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