Brenda Biggs gets one day a week to herself. She has one day to catch a breath from her part-time job as a grant writer for a local city government, an active social life and being the caregiver for her partner, John, who has cerebral palsy. Despite the chaos, Brenda says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
More than 20 years ago, John gave Brenda a life-changing question: was she willing to move in with him and become his caregiver? The role meant looking after John’s physical and emotional well-being, which is often equated to a full-time job. The question didn’t faze Brenda. Although she didn’t want to give up her house or her independence, Brenda knew she wanted to be with John—whatever the cost.
Brenda, now 77 years old, had some previous caregiving experience from looking after her mom. She knew the amount of stressful work required. But she also understood the joys being a caregiver brings.
“Some caregivers, and I’m probably one of them, like to feel needed. We like to have people want us and to be there for them. There’s a reward there, and you feel good because you’re doing something for somebody else,” Brenda says.
A caregiver’s duties vary depending on their relationship with the person they’re helping, and how much support that individual needs. In most cases, caregivers are family members or friends who offer in-home, non-medical assistance.
Caregiver duties and responsibilities can include:
- Assisting with personal care: bathing and grooming, dressing, toileting, and exercise
- Basic food preparation: preparing meals, shopping, housekeeping, laundry, and other errands
- General health care: overseeing medication and prescriptions usage, appointment reminders and administering medicine
- Mobility assistance: help with getting in and out of a wheelchair, car or shower
- Personal supervision: providing constant companionship and general supervision
- Transportation: driving to and from activities, running errands, and help getting in and out of wheelchair-accessible vehicle
- Emotional support: being a stable companion and supporter in all matters personal, health-related and emotional
- Care for the elderly: orienting or grounding someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, relaying information from a doctor to family members
- Back-up care (or respite) services: providing other caregivers a break
- Home organization: help with organizing, packing or cleaning for a trip, or general house care and cleaning
- Health monitoring: following a care plan and noticing any changes in the individual’s health, recording and reporting any differences
No matter how much love is between a caregiver and an individual, caregiving isn’t an easy job — and it only gets harder as recipients get older. More than half of caregivers say the role takes a toll on their jobs, and more than 75 percent say it takes a toll on their family lives. Almost all caregivers have experienced anxiety or irritability stemming from their roles, and they say it’s a very demanding job.
Before she agreed to be a caregiver, Brenda had no idea it would infringe on her day-to-day life as much as it has. “The responsibility as a caregiver, the expectations are pretty high,” Brenda says. She can no longer do everything she wants, such as leave the house at a moment’s notice. Brenda says she has lost a sense of privacy.
Caregiving can take both physical and psychological tolls on anyone, and many caregivers experience symptoms consistent with depression. Overwhelmed with their responsibilities, many caregivers forget to take time for themselves, which can lead to caregiver burnout. And caregiver burnout is hard to predict because no two caregiving roles are the same.
Logistics and planning are one of the hardest parts of Brenda’s role. Whether it’s renting a scooter or wheelchair van while on vacation or trying to get out for the afternoon to a local music festival, Brenda works hard to make sure things are barrier-free for she and John before they arrive.
But after 20 years, Brenda’s been able to find the balance between her role as a caregiver and that of an independent person with her own life. That’s not the case for many caregivers, who instead run the risk of burnout after devoting all their energy to caring for someone else, instead of themselves.
Brenda knows that her caregiver duties are done right as long as John is safe, as independent as possible and can continue to pursue his dreams.
What are the benefits of caregiving?
Caregivers take the struggle out of the everyday routine, eliminating challenges and boosting independence. While it’s not an easy job, Brenda says being a support system for John is rewarding purely because she’s caring for someone she loves.
The companionship, the feeling of being needed and wanted, and the love between Brenda and John are what keep Brenda happy in her role as his caregiver. Being able to see the positives in a caregiving role is part of what allows many caregivers to be satisfied and find pride in their jobs. Giving back to someone else is gratifying, and often caregiving gives peoples’ lived meaning and helps them feel successful.
Though John’s the one who needs physical assistance, he and Brenda rely equally on the relationship they’ve built. When she’s away for more than a day or two, Brenda will call John, telling him “I want to be home; I want to be back with you.”
For Brenda, the caregiving aspect of her relationship isn’t the most important. “The companionship is a big thing, and I like to be with him.”
To learn more about caregiving visit VMI’s caregiver resource center.