Kara Ward started her life as a caregiver earlier than most people do. She was only 29 when her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2006. Ward had two young children of her own at the time—a toddler and an infant—and still she found herself caring for her mom, whose cognitive abilities declined almost as soon as she was diagnosed.
Ward is the older of two children, and lived about an hour from her parents, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Her younger brother was just out of college, “and just not capable, I think, of handling it emotionally or physically,” she told me. I asked Ward if she had felt capable. “I didn’t have a choice, so yes. I think if I looked back, I would say, ‘God, no, nobody’s really capable of that.’ But when you don’t have a choice, it’s amazing what you can do.” Her mother died within five months.
These days, Ward cares for her grandmother, now 94, who lives a few minutes away from her in Charlottesville, in her own apartment.
The broader crisis in elderly care also exposes a more fundamental problem in this country. The United States focuses its resources, its social safety net, and its policies on people who are in the workforce. From health care to the school system to our retirement programs, we identify people as current workers, future workers, and past workers. Americans tend to put less value on labor done outside of a paid job, the everyday work of feeding, clothing, entertaining, and loving others and ourselves. This is the work that caregivers do, as age prevents their loved ones from doing those critical tasks on their own, and it is fundamental to a functioning society and to a sense of community. Everyone I spoke to wanted the United States to find ways to value that—not just as labor, but as an important part of life.
She showers once a week, and for the next six weeks—approximately four months into our new pandemic normal—I will be the one to bathe her. Her...