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Caregivers, You're Not Alone

AARP Ambassador of Pursuit and Happiness Chris Gardner shares his personal story

It was less than a year ago when I knew things probably wouldn't get better. At the time, I was looking at two straps, some lace and tiny hooks. I'd taken it off many times, but I'd never put it on.

See also: Caregiving Resource Center

It was Holly's bra. Holly, my partner of 20 years, was battling a stage 4 inoperable brain tumor. She'd lost her vision, had a broken arm and nerve damage on one side. I'd been taking care of her since her diagnosis several years earlier, and now that included changing her bandages, reading to her and getting her dressed in the morning — including that dang bra.

There are a lot of us out there taking care of loved ones. We may not call ourselves primary caregivers — instead, we use words we're more comfortable with — a good son, a loving wife, a loyal friend. But at the end of the day, we're taking care of a parent, a friend, a husband or wife, and it's a big job. For me, it was fulfilling and inspiring, but at times, I also felt worn out and isolated.

It turns out, even though I might have felt alone, I wasn't. A survey by AARP shows that as of 2009, there were roughly 42 million unpaid family caregivers in the U.S. We provided an estimated $450 billion worth of unpaid care to adults, aging relatives and friends. Research for the Ad Council's new campaign for caregivers found that many of us feel isolated, tired and overwhelmed.

Holly had many friends who helped us in her final months, but I know not everyone feels like they have someone to lean on. I want you to know there are lots of us who have walked down this path, and AARP can help. Connect online with experts and others going through the same struggles you might be facing today at the Caregiving Resource Center, AARP.org/caregiving.

When Holly's condition was first diagnosed, we could still go out to dinner together, hit the gym, just be a couple. But as her tumor continued to grow, our lives changed. I started doing everything twice. I'd get up, then get Holly up. Brush my teeth, then brush hers. Everything you do, you do with love, but there were days I didn't shower, because there wasn't time after taking care of Holly's needs. She always came first, and I realize now that being a caregiver also means taking care of yourself. You can't go down, because often, there ain't no backup.

For years, I had overcome every obstacle, achieved every goal and slain every dragon I'd ever faced. I went from being homeless, spending nights in a public bathroom with my son, to owning my own financial services company. Standing in line at the soup kitchen, to walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. But as Holly's health declined, my fears and concerns grew, and I realized I couldn't fight us out of this health crisis we were facing.

If you've never taken care of someone else, think about this: At some point in your life, you will either be cared for or be a caregiver. And you need to know that you're not alone.

Maybe you planned on being a caregiver from the beginning. Maybe it crept up on you over the years. Being the caregiver for a loved one can bring your family closer, but it can also be physically demanding, a strain on your finances, and interfere with work and other relationships. I'm glad AARP is putting an emphasis on taking care of the caregiver. Because you can't take care of the person you love unless you take care of yourself.

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