We live in a society that tends to value what we do over who we are.
If what we do isn't highly paid or well understood, many people often brush it off as unimportant. Thus, one of the most important jobs in our society today – that of being a family caregiver – is all too often undervalued by people who don't understand.
We may not be able to control other's viewpoints, but we do have some control over whether we accept this view of what we do and remain confident in our own decisions.
During the two decades I spent caring for different combinations of multiple elders I often found myself searching for what I hoped would be a suitable answer to the question: "What do you do?"
This question was generally asked at the occasional social event I attended.
I'd learned early on that people really weren't interested in how I was on call 24/7 because of potential emergency situations with several elders. They didn't care that I often spent two or three out of five week days taking people to medical appointments and much of the rest of my week tending to their daily needs. They couldn't relate to that kind of life and didn't regard what I did as a "real" job.
Therefore, I wasn't worth much more than a brief nod before they'd move on to someone more interesting. Eventually, I grew strong enough to not worry about what other people thought and found my own satisfaction in giving loving care to my family.
Statistics can help back our case
As millions of boomers' parents continue to age, more people have been called on to be family caregivers.
This increased demand has given caregiving a higher profile, which helps some, but the general public still tends to lack a true understanding and respect for what caregivers do.
We shouldn't have to justify our choices to care for our adult loved ones, or go on a rant about how we are trying to fulfill what we see as our responsibilities. Yet we often do.
A MetLife study, as reported on NPR's "The True Cost of Caregiving," says that the kind of care family caregivers provide would cost about $42,000 a year, if it was provided by paid workers. A private room in a nursing home averages more than $87,000. Of course, the specific figures vary by region, and the cost of care has risen since the original study was updated in 2011.
However, caregiving is about far more than money.
We do it out of love or at least a sense of duty. Would it be too much, though, for us to ask for a little respect and understanding from non-caregivers?
Former colleagues, potential employers and even old friends often don't understand why we frequently need to take substantial time away from our work; generally in the form unpaid leave or extended vacation time. It's either that, or we quit our jobs.
If we quit a paying job and then try to find another when our caregiving has eased, or we simply have no choice financially to do anything else, we are often treated, as one woman put it, "like we took a long vacation."
Vacation? Have these people never cared for a vulnerable adult?
Caregivers would like to have people understand that with or without outside employment, caregiving is a job.
As a person who has worked in a variety of paid positions, I can say that no job for which I've received a regular paycheck has ever compared in intensity or hours to my years of caregiving. There were times when going to my officially recognized job was a vacation from caregiving, except that the worry of caregiving never eases.
As with many difficult life situations, only those who've walked a similar path can understand on the deepest level.
If you want support for your caregiving efforts, go to your state website and look for their version of the National Family Caregiver Support Program. Ask for practical help in any way you can get it.
Learn to understand your own value, and then look to other caregivers for empathetic emotional support. We know each other's hearts.