If we’re lucky as we cross the threshold into old age, people who we love – our spouses, our children, our nieces and nephews, friends and neighbors – start becoming our caregivers.
When we stop driving, they take us to the doctor. When we need a prescription, they go to the pharmacy and pick it up. When we can’t make sense of medical bills, they come by and plow through the paperwork. And when we stop getting out much, they visit us, talk to us, sit by our side.
It’s an intimate act, this decision to care for someone who is sick, old, or frail – to accompany them on their journey into life’s last stage.
Much has been written about the burdens of caregiving: the juggle for families raising young children and tending to aging parents, the demands on time and finances, the emotional roller coaster as relationships are redefined, the stress of confronting illness, debility and impending death. As health reporters, this is the side of caregiving we usually examine.
Less discussed and far less well appreciated are the benefits of sharing this vulnerable time of life with someone.
There are few experiences in life that similarly call upon our humanity and our empathy. If cuddling an infant is an act of joy, then attending to an older person who’s weakening, physically and perhaps psychologically, is an act of commitment, an assertion of ties that bind us and refuse to be broken. Though you don’t hear about it, people who become caregivers often end up feeling they get as much (appreciation, satisfaction, a sense of their own decency) as they give.
What better way to convey this than through photography, that medium that says what words alone can’t capture?
Take a look at this set of caregiving photographs recently published by NPR and think about what the faces captured here express. I see dignity and acceptance, patience, warmth, boredom, independence, distance, closeness, and resignation – emotions that people might not admit feeling if they were asked directly. The photos were taken by Annabel Clark, daughter of the actress Lynn Redgrave. NPR gives some background on how Clark got interested in the subject here.
What’s the message for health reporters? When you’re writing or producing a piece about caregiving, pay close attention to gestures, expressions and actions that hint at what people are experiencing but not willing or able to articulate. Listen for the silences, when you get the feeling that words are falling away and something important lies beneath. If you pick up on these clues, you may be able to take an interview to the next level and write a story with details that will capture your readers’ hearts.
Look for a tip sheet on caregiving in the Aging Core Topic section of AHCJ’s website this fall. It will be full of good information about data, reports and sources who can walk you through this topic. But the people and families who give caregiving depth and complexity, those you’ll need to find for yourselves.
Update: I wrote this before the New York Times‘ story on Sunday, May 6, “When Illness Makes a Spouse a Stranger,” about frontotemporal dementia. Denise Grady, the article’s author, does a brilliant job of portraying both sides of the caregiving story: the depths of love and commitment that Ruth French feels for her afflicted husband, Michael, and the depths of despair that she undergoes as his personality changes and his care becomes demanding beyond all measure. Look at how the tension in the story is complemented by the photograph that accompanies it of Ruth and Michael spooning in bed. And watch the video, so aptly titled “in love and loss,” for more heart-rending images that add extraordinary depth and emotion to this piece.