A silent but resonant scream

Caregiving is the focus of an AARP- Ad Council campaign.
Caregiving is the focus of an AARP- Ad Council campaign. (AARP/Ad Council)
Posted: September 06, 2012

By Lise Funderburg

AARP and the Ad Council recently released a new series of public service announcements about caregiving. My favorite is a television spot featuring a man and his elderly mother sitting in a doctor's office. As a calm voice speaks over a soundtrack of tinkling piano keys, the man opens his mouth and screams. We can't hear it, but his expression speaks volumes.

That silent scream stopped me in my tracks, taking me back to the spring day in 2004 when my two sisters and I crowded into an oncologist's office with our father to hear his test results: stage IV metastasized prostate cancer, already perforating the bones of his skeleton on its way to his brain.

From that moment forward, as our father waged his own battles with demoralizing deficits and intractable pain, my sisters and I felt as if we had been dropped onto an alien planet with unfamiliar languages and customs. Even the laws of gravity weren't to be taken for granted on Planet Caregiver; up was down, and down was up, as we found ourselves having to parent our parent, whether changing his diaper, tying his shoelaces, or signing him up for hospice care.

On Planet Caregiver, we were in a constant scramble to keep up with an ever-changing cast of health-care providers, the Gordian tangles of insurance, and the unpredictable paths of illness. Even the most basic assumptions had to be revisited: For example, while terminal cancer attacked my father's body and a stroke scarred his brain, it was a virulent, drug-resistant infection of a bedsore on his elbow that led to twice-daily antibiotic infusions, two surgeries, an interruption of chemotherapy, and a raised-arm cast that made Dad look as if he were saluting the F├╝hrer.

Still, we were lucky. Our father had excellent health insurance, we lived close to him, we got along, and he brought a lust for life to the table that helped us prioritize. We also had supportive families of our own and robust senses of humor - lifesavers both. My sisters and I rallied in ways we didn't know we could, finding ways to mirror our father's years of dedication to and sacrifice for us.

But, oh, how we could have used some help! Our energies were constantly diverted by a paralyzing ignorance about our options for managing the physically and emotionally depleting process of helping a loved one travel the road to his death.

Little did we know that we belonged to an enormous cohort of unpaid caregivers in this country - 42 million people, according to a new AARP study. The advocacy group's new ads promote its Caregiving Resource Center, an online clearinghouse of expertise and fellowship for people like me and my sisters who are trying to navigate the unfamiliar bureaucracy of demise.

The image of the screaming man is a strong one - but not as strong as the ad's concluding scene, in which the man, no longer yelling, turns to his mother with a loving smile. For me, that captures the complexity of the situation and its strains, and the underlying truth for many of us: We don't want an easy out; we just need help.

Fortunately, organizations such as AARP, the National Alliance for Caregiving, and the website Caring.com are responding, and not a moment too soon: Last year saw the first set of baby boomers turn 65, foreshadowing an enormous swell of care-needing seniors for decades to come.

AARP started airing those ads six years to the day after the death of my father. That was a day that signaled irresolvable loss, but also a natural conclusion to one of the most affirming and grace-filled efforts of my life. The news that we as a country are beginning to acknowledge and support caregiving, recognizing that there is living even in dying, strikes me as a wonderful way to celebrate such an anniversary.

Lise Funderburg teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home" (Free Press).

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