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Caregivers: The Invisible Patient

Caring for the Caregiver
By
WebMD Feature

July 16, 2001 -- It's a sunny June afternoon and Molena Cannon says she can now spare a few minutes for a telephone interview because "the plumber just left. He was removing a set of dentures from the toilet. Just a typical day here."

For 28-year-old Cannon, a typical day means caring for her grandparents, both in their 80s, as well as her 3-year-old daughter.

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One in four Americans -- about 54 million people -- function, like Cannon, as a family caregiver, according to a recent survey by the National Family Caregivers Association. Most of these people didn't choose the role, says NFCA founder Suzanne Mintz, but rather had it foisted on them by circumstances -- a sick and failing spouse or parent or a handicapped child.

Using that model, Molena Cannon is the exception: She chose to give up her home and her full-time job at a community hospital to become a full-time caregiver. It was a choice that saw the Cannon family moving to the family farm in rural Georgia where her grandparents lived, and where her father had been raised.

Cannon's husband is a police officer, but in his off-time he works the 300-acre farm to supplement the $800 a month Cannon's grandparents get from Social Security. To help make up for the lost wages from Cannon's job as a monitor technician, she and her husband also grow and sell vegetables. "We sell them from our back porch and gross about $1,000," says Cannon.

Caregiving Can Offer Special Rewards

Loss of income is a common dilemma facing family caregivers, but the rewards can often outweigh the sacrifices, says Cannon, whose grandfather has been debilitated by stroke and whose grandmother has suffered both a heart attack and the onset of dementia. In her hospital work, Cannon says, she often saw elderly patients with "no family or friends visiting" and decided her grandparents wouldn't suffer that fate.

When she and her husband announced their decision to move to her grandparents' farm, it didn't meet with universal applause from the rest of the family.

"My mother was very opposed to it because she thought it would be bad for my daughter," says Cannon.

Cannon's father had died some years previously, but her uncle, the only surviving child of her grandparents, was also initially opposed to the idea. "But he is coming around now because he sees how unsafe it is for them to be here by themselves," she says.

Different Stories, Same Emotions

A desire to help other caregivers is what led Suzanne Mintz to organize the National Family Caregivers Association. Mintz learned firsthand about being a caregiver when her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1974.

"That's when our lives changed," says Mintz. At the time, she was 28 and her husband, Steven, was 31.They were married in 1967 and were parents of a son born in 1969. "That's not the time of life when you expect to hear that your spouse has an incurable neurological disease," she says.

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