By Diana Lamirand
The stoic sense of duty that caregiver Kathy Zook has felt for her elderly parents has at times limited the freedom she hoped to enjoy after she retired, but she’s resolute in her determination to provide that care for as long as needed.
“It’s just how life is,” said Zook, 67, a Noblesville resident who cared for her father until he died in 2013 and who continues to care for her 86-year-old mother. “I’ve seen all of my friends go through this. I saw my mother and father deal with their parents getting old. It’s just my turn.”
That devotion to caregiving is something she shares with thousands of others in Indiana.
Zook is among the 837,000 Hoosiers who put in roughly 780 million hours a year caring for older relatives and friends, according to “Valuing the Invaluable,” an AARP report. The estimated value of this unpaid caregiving in Indiana totals nearly $9.5 billion annually. The full AARP Public Policy Institute report is at aarp.org/invaluable.
These caregivers check in daily, shop for groceries, prepare meals, drive to appointments, handle financial matters and much more.
“It’s more than three times what the state through Medicaid spends on similar long-term care programs,” said Sarah Waddle, interim state director for AARP Indiana. “That care often goes far beyond basic duties, as almost half of Hoosier family caregivers perform medical or nursing tasks for their loved ones.”
Flex hours would help
Two Caregiver Connection conferences—June 14 at the Ivy Tech Ballroom in Indianapolis, and June 23 at the Landmark Centre in Fort Wayne—will give caregivers an opportunity to share experiences and find resources to help when the burden gets to be too much, said Katie Moreau, communications director for AARP Indiana. Go to aarp.org/in or call 877-926-8300 toll-free for details.
Moreau said allowing employees more flex hours to care for older relatives would be one improvement. “We hear so often from caregivers who say their employers are fine when a child is sick and needs to go to the doctor, but it’s become somehow taboo if they need to take care of their mom or take her to a doctor’s appointment,” she said.
Zook retired in 2009 from her full-time job as the cafeteria manager for the Noblesville school system to be more available to care for her parents. As the health of her 83-year-old father, Lyle Howell, deteriorated rapidly in the months before he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, she and her brothers, Mike and Steve, shared caregiving responsibilities.
Carolyn Howell, Zook’s mom, didn’t always understand what was happening with her husband of 65 years, Zook said.
Zook handled the stress of caregiving for her father with her younger brother, Mike. “If I was at a breaking point, I would call him,” she said, and vice versa. He would stop by in the morning, then Steve would visit in the afternoon, and Zook took the evening shift.
“We kind of shared that,” Zook recalled. “It was just part of what we did. It took the three of us. It would have been overwhelming otherwise.”
Carolyn Howell still lives in her own home with Steve, but she requires daily help from her children.
Zook’s kids are grown and her husband is retired, but she has limited personal time because of her caregiver role. “We are not as free as we had hoped to be at this time of our lives,” she said. “I just do my best to keep an eye on her and get what she needs.”
The Caregiver Connection conferences will also feature panel discussions with elder-law experts and representatives from hospitals, the Alzheimer’s Association, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program and others.
AARP Indiana will also provide information about the CARE Act, a new law designed to improve communication among hospitals, caregivers and the people in their care.
Diana Lamirand is a writer living in Noblesville, IN.