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They’re the meal givers, the medicine givers, the compassion givers. Every day, 40 million family caregivers give their hearts, helping older parents, spouses and other loved ones live independently at home — where they want to be.
AARP believes these family caregivers aren’t celebrated nearly enough, so we created Portraits of Care to showcase and celebrate the invaluable contributions they make every day. From the thousands of family caregiver stories and photos AARP received through the I Heart Caregivers storytelling initiative, we randomly selected 53 — one from every state as well as D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I appreciate anyone who’s called on to love and care for the sick. It’s hard at times, tiring and a mental strain, but well worth it all when they look up at you with love in their eyes.”
Judy, age 64, is a chaplain and ordained minister. She took care of her husband, Lewis, a veteran who had colon cancer, leukemia, heart failure and COPD, for four years. Previous to this, she cared for two grandsons with muscular dystrophy.
“As my mother continues to decline, she holds on to her caring personality. It’s been difficult at times. But I’m so glad we had this time together.”
At age 48, Karen is married, has two grown children and works full time as a medical social worker. She also cares for her mother, Beverly, who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in an assisted living facility nearby.
“My aunt says, ‘Every time I see you, Frankie, I think I see God.’ Going to [visit her at] the care center is a relief. I get to see her smiling.”
At age 66, Frank works part time for the U.S. Census Bureau. He has cared for his aunt, Lupe, for 10 years, at first in his home. Lupe moved to a care facility this year because of her late-stage dementia and a decline in Frank’s health. He still visits her at least three times a week.
“Making the decision to care for Mother meant leaving my own home, job, church and friends to devote my life to her and get her back on her feet. It was a quick decision, but a hardship financially.”
Shelly, age 69, gave up her career running a newspaper and moved 220 miles to live with and care for her mother, Betty, who had broken her hip. Her mother has since passed away.
“My Mama is gone now but I’m so grateful and thankful I had her in my life during her last days. Love you, Mama, always in my heart.”
For four years while teaching full time, Sandy, age 68, cared for her mother, Anita—doing everything from bathing her to medical duties. Sandy retired from her job six months before her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, passed away.
“I often feel overwhelmed, but my guys deserve dignity and to be able to stay at home.”
A cancer survivor, Lynn, age 61, cares for her husband of 14 years, Randy, who is a veteran with stage 4 kidney cancer as well as peripheral artery disease. She was also a caregiver for her 93-year-old father until he passed away in October. Lynn, a certified nursing assistant, had to cut back her work hours from full to part time so she could focus on her caregiving responsibilities.
“Although I find caregiving a labor of love, my main need is periodical respite.”
Wayne and his wife, Margaret, both professors, traveled the world until Alzheimer’s disease took her memory. Now, after three years, at age 79, he remains Margaret’s primary caregiver in their home, a part of a senior adult community. Wayne still teaches online courses and serves as a chaplain part time.
“I’d tell new caregivers that taking on such a responsibility will change your life.”
Carol, age 60, has cared for her younger brother, Steve, who has cerebral palsy, in one way or another since early adulthood. Since 2002, they have lived together, with Carol taking on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities. She also works for the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services.
“The first year, I didn’t think I was going to make it. With some help, it got easier. I started a support group to help other family caregivers.”
Ann, age 62 and a mother and grandmother, has cared for her husband, Willard, ever since he had a hemorrhagic stroke while on the job in 2010. Willard needs full-time care, including help with bathing, eating and mobility.
“The adjustment of going from a reciprocal relationship to 100 percent caregiver was the first challenge to conquer. No one will ever be able to care for my husband like I can.”
Linda, age 71, is a mother, runs marathons and has a law degree. For the past eight years, she has cared full time for Larry, her husband of 48 years, who has dementia and COPD.
“Our daily life has changed quite a bit as Mom can’t be left alone. Every caregiver needs a break to maintain their health and sanity.”
Sherleen, age 56, has cared for her mom, Eula, who has Alzheimer’s disease, for five years with the help of her husband, Jim, her sister and a close friend. Sherleen and Jim both work full time and have two sons, one of whom is autistic.
“My mom was working full time and I was attending school full time. We felt very alone. We were not aware of the resources that could have helped us.”
Deidre, age 24, and her mom, Elvira, took turns providing intense care for her dad, Jimmy, who died of congestive heart failure in 2013. Now with her master’s in nursing, Deidre works at an assisted living facility. She requested this portrait of her mom and dad together.
“A good day was filled with joy and laughter. The tough time was exhaustion — the constant lifting and lack of sleep.”
Yvette, age 55, has epilepsy. She cared for her parents while working, raising two children and helping with her much younger sister, Jocelyn. Her mother, Donna, had multiple sclerosis, and her father, LeeRoy, a veteran, was paralyzed from a stroke.
“It’s been such an amazing journey. My mom has taught me a lot throughout my life, and she’s still teaching.”
Sheri, age 54, has a doctorate in education. For five years, she has lived with her mother, Ruth, who has dementia, breast cancer and diabetes, providing care 24/7. Sheri wants to write a book or blog about her experience.
“Being a caregiver is physically and emotionally the hardest thing anyone will ever have to do for a loved one.”
Nel, age 69, is a mother of three and grandmother of six. Three months after she retired in 2013, her husband, Dale, suddenly had a seizure and was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. Nel cared for him at home, round-the-clock, until he passed peacefully on Oct. 13, 2014.
“Once you’re a caregiver, you’re always a caregiver. I would not change it for the world.”
Deborah, age 66, and her husband have been caregivers for years — first for a son with leukemia and another son with Down syndrome, then for their mothers, and now for her 86-year-old father, Carl, who still lives in his own home.
“She is my best friend and I love her with all my heart. I felt like it was my duty to take care of her.”
Charity, age 39, with a certificate in medical assistance, helps care for her grandmother, Joan, who had a heart attack, stroke and grand mal seizure in 2008. Charity has worked continually with Joan so that she can now stand and eat on her own with very little trouble, and walk with her walker.
“I was stressed and worn out. I could not work and take care of him so I eventually took an early retirement. It was the only way I felt I could survive.”
Beginning in the 1990s, JoAnn, age 66, cared for her husband, John, a former police officer, due to disability from injuries, heart disease, and lung and colon cancer. As his health declined, John depended solely on JoAnn for constant, complex care. John died in 2014; JoAnn now cares for herself.
“The journey is definitely not easy, but it’s been an honor to take care of the man who’s been so great to me.”
Part of the sandwich generation, at age 30, Britnee raises her 2-year-old son and cares for her father, Percy Sr., a World War II veteran who has Alzheimer’s disease. She works full time in 12-hour shifts as a chemist and has earned sick leave but can’t use it to take Percy Sr. to the doctor.
“Some nights she was so sick, she could not make it upstairs to bed. She would sleep down in the living room in her recliner. I slept on the couch in case she needed help.”
Amy, age 53, gave up her job as a medical secretary to provide complex care full time for her mother, Lorraine, who developed a rare fungal infection after heart surgery. Amy cared for Lorraine for three years before her mother died in 2009. She has since been meeting with a grief counselor.
“My goal is to keep our financial heads above water. I could use some respite care in the future as well as some health care aide training that I don’t have to pay for.”
Laurie, age 57, retired early from teaching at a public school to care for her husband, Bill, who has Parkinson’s disease and spinal stenosis. She also cares for her dad, who lives in a senior home. Laurie talks with friends to cope with stress and practices meditation, but she still has trouble sleeping.
“I’ve learned to be a nurse, counselor, cook, chauffeur, banker and more. But, most importantly, I’ve learned what it means to be a daughter!”
Coral, age 62, was a school superintendent. Nearly 10 years ago, she retired early to live with and care for her mother, Rachel, who has dementia and now requires 24/7 care and companionship. Coral brings her mother to an assisted living facility that offers respite care if she has to take a break.
“I realized being a caregiver consumes your life. But I didn’t anticipate becoming a human resources manager, dispute mediator, traffic cop, practical nurse, benefits coordinator all as part of the role.”
Mary, age 59 and a college administrator, assembled, organized and scheduled a 12-member “dream team,” herself included, who cared for her mother, Eartha, at home following falls and other health issues. Mary borrowed from her own retirement savings to make this care possible until Eartha died in January.
“I’ve learned not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles — to live for today. I’ve learned to laugh more. I’ve learned patience.”
Jill, age 67, provided full-time care for her husband, Bob, for five years until he passed away in October. Bob had numerous health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. He also suffered an aneurysm and had quadruple bypass surgery. Jill helped Bob shower, shave and dress, gave him medicine and insulin shots, and handled all finances, house and yard work.
“You’re just doing what you need to do moment by moment. You become so obsessed with every move, every need, every breath.”
Pamela, age 58 and married with two grown children, was living in Chicago when her younger brother, Paul, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She moved to Mississippi to be his caregiver during the last month of his life. She managed his medications, cooked and cleaned — whatever needed to be done. Paul died, surrounded by family, at age 43.
“We planned and made decisions together, and, always, I kept her dreams, aspirations and wishes at the forefront.”
Karen, age 68, is a journalist who works at home. For the past 25 years, she’s cared for her mother, Josephine, who had a series of mini-strokes and a heart attack. Josephine, who will turn 100 in February, worked until she was 85 and still lives in her own home with Karen’s help as well as home-delivered meals and a visiting nurse.
“You’re going to have your trials and tribulations, but you just muddle your way through it. The best part is still being able to give her some joy in life.”
Glenn, age 56, has cared for his wife, Karen, for 13 years doing 95 percent of everything, while working full time. She has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, unless Glenn is there to transfer her. Karen’s mother and daughter also help. Married for 31 years, Glenn still brings Karen to Mexico annually for vacation.
“As we both have entered our senior years now, the unpredictability of the future looms heavy.”
Teresa, age 64, has been a caregiver for her husband, Dean, since a tractor accident caused traumatic brain injury in 1999. She worries about medical costs and having enough food on the table. She currently receives support from a home health aide, a nurse and her daughter, who lives in the same town. Teresa now serves on a board for a caregiver coalition fighting for other caregivers.
“Know you are not alone and there are people and agencies out there to help or direct you where to get that help.”
BJ’s daughter, Kimberly, always had a special relationship with her grandfather, Harley, who had Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and melanoma. BJ, age 63, and her husband sold their house and moved into her father’s trailer to care for Harley during his last years. Kimberly and her infant daughter also lived there at the time. BJ worked full time, bringing Harley to an adult day program until he eventually required nursing home care. He died in 2005.
“Challenging, rewarding, heartbreaking, fulfilling, all-consuming and life-changing — just a few of the words I would use to describe the experience of taking care of my dad.”
Sherri, age 67, cared for her father, Woody, for 10 years. She helped with everything, depending on the day. Woody, who died in 2011, had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He eventually moved to a nursing facility when Sherri could no longer care for him. Sherri remembers getting to know her dad in the last years “in a way you couldn’t know any other way.”
“As we did so much to care for him, I still never saw myself as a caregiver. I saw myself as a 17-year-old kid doing what she had to do.”
Kyllian, now 21, cared for her father, Richard, for four years while he was battling terminal colon and liver cancer. She was in high school then, running track and doing part-time jobs to help out her mother financially. Kyllian now honors her father by running marathons all across the country to raise money for cancer research. She continues to go to school and works helping other caregivers.
“I want my mother to be happy and comfortable in her home with people she loves for as long as she’s alive.”
Valentin, age 65, travels 100 miles every Thursday evening to spend the night and all day Friday with his mother, Ruby, who has mobility and memory impairment. In addition to being her companion, he cooks meals, helps Ruby get dressed and gives her medication. Valentin shares caregiving duties with his four brothers and four sisters, each of whom has designated days to stay with Ruby.
“My mother being a very independent person … wished to be taken care of at home. I fulfilled her wish, and she lived with us until she died.”
Editha, age 73 and married with four grown children, cared for her mother, Cesaria, for nearly two decades. Cesaria had early stages of dementia and couldn’t walk because of issues with her knees. One of 10 children, as a retired nurse, Editha took on the majority of her mother’s care. Cesaria died in August, at 97 — four weeks after she fell and sustained a compound femur fracture.
“It truly takes a toll on a single caregiver never to be given time off from the 24 hours of care each day. There is no good night’s sleep, as you always are listening for medical issues that arise.”
Susan, age 62, took early retirement to care for her mother, Helena, after she was hospitalized for heart surgery. For six years, without family support, she’s provided round-the-clock care for Helena, who at age 96 still remains in her home among the hundreds of flowers she has planted over the years.
“Although Mom had other family members who helped with her care, it was the youngest caregiver who provided the most important care for her.”
Katherine, age 62, lived with her mother, Beth, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease for over 10 years — providing 24/7 care. One of Katherine’s great-nephews, Zander, now 7, had a special bond with Beth, his “Gramma Gramma,” and helped hugely with her care. He became her “rememberer,” brought her ice cream daily and read to her when she could no longer read to him.
“Sometimes I feel like I need someone to step up and do something to help. The truth is someone is available, and that’s me.”
One of 12 children, Veronica, age 56, started helping her parents eight years ago by going grocery shopping for them. Following her father’s death in 2014, Veronica’s mother, Elvera, who has congestive heart failure and diabetes, came to live with her. Veronica has worked as a customer service representative at the same company for 15 years. For the past three years, she has worked from home so she can continue caring for Elvera.
“I went to the hospital every single day. When they said I needed to decide where she would go, I told them my mom would never be a burden.”
Four years ago, Denise, age 63, moved her mother, Ruby, from Chicago to Oklahoma, eventually retiring to spend more time with her. Denise cared for Ruby, who required 24/7 care after a serious fall and hospitalization. Ruby was buried on Aug. 3, which would have been her 98th birthday.
“When I found my husband at the back door, pistol in one hand, 911 on the phone with another, convinced there were seven robbers in the house, I knew we were in trouble.”
Kathy, age 63, cared for her husband, Ben, who had Lewy body dementia, for four years until he passed way. Kathy assisted Ben with all his personal care, helped him cope with confusion and distracted him from hallucinations. She found respite by taking Ben to an adult day program or having a paid caregiver come into their home for a few hours.
“I am careful to be sure that she also has time alone with her own friends. It’s essential for both of us to have a place to retreat.”
Cheryl, age 60 and a nurse, added an accessible suite to her home in anticipation of what her mother, Evelyn, who has high blood pressure and had a knee replacement, may need in later life. Evelyn moved from California three years ago to live with Cheryl and her husband. She celebrated her 92nd birthday in July and, according to Cheryl, is thriving.
“There was a moment when I had to quit my job to take care of my mother as she took care of me.”
Raquel, age 53, cares for her mother, Brigida, who has diabetes, high blood pressure and edema. Although Raquel’s sisters and husband also help, Raquel lives two doors down from Brigida and, for two years, has assisted with daily tasks and personal hygiene, and coordinated medication and doctors’ appointments. She also cares for a sister who has a disability.
“I think appreciating the person that you are caring for is number one. Respect their wishes and try to get others to help.”
Ruth, age 65, cared for her father, John, who was a World War II veteran and had a debilitating lung condition. Ruth, along with her sisters and brother, helped John with dressing, eating, walking and taking his medication. Ruth’s mother, Mary, who had liver cancer, also needed assistance. For two years, the siblings scheduled cooking meals and sleeping overnight so they would be there to help.
“We are best friends, and that’s the way it’s been for the last 21 years.”
Marge, age 73 and widowed twice, cares for her friend Gary, who has congestive heart failure. Despite her own health challenges due to stage 4 kidney failure, Marge is his only caregiver. She checks Gary’s blood pressure, pulse and oxygen levels, and with the help of a hospice nurse, administers 25 medications. Some weeks Marge and Gary have four doctors’ appointments between them.
“It was the hardest thing we ever did. Ever. I could not have done it alone. But as a family, we endured.”
Along with her two brothers, Mary, age 61 and a gerontologist, cared for their father, Ed, who had prostate cancer. The three siblings all lived out of town but provided round-the-clock care, managing medications and everything Ed and their mother, Pat, needed. Mary, who was also battling cancer, drove 4½ hours to her parents’ house to spend a few days at a time. Following Ed’s death, Pat had a stroke and passed away.
“My husband of over 50 years passed away three years ago. But before he passed, we lived through one of the most challenging parts of our marriage.”
For seven years, Patricia, age 74, provided 24/7 care for her husband, Bob, after he had a stroke, then fell and contracted a MRSA infection after one of numerous surgeries. At 4 feet 11 inches tall, she helped Bob, who was over 6 feet tall, in every way there was — some obvious like bathing and feeding, and others like turning the pages of his beloved books when he no longer could.
“I get to see the world through her eyes. I get to discover my own strength and that I can do great things because she inspires me.”
When her parents died, Catherine, age 54, took over caring for her sister, Lisa, who has cerebral palsy and requires round-the-clock care. After being laid off from a demanding job, Catherine took a huge step backward in her career to be able to care for Lisa. For more than six years, she’s bathed and dressed her, managed her medication and advocated for Lisa, who also receives assistance through Medicaid. Lisa, now 41, has a photographic memory.
“Through all the ups and downs, I count it as one of my greatest privileges to have been called her daughter and caregiver.”
For 20 years, Nancy, age 62, cared for her mother, Elinor, who was neurologically impaired from a car accident and also suffered from skeletal and muscular decay. At the same time, she worked full time, raised four daughters and cared for her husband, who was terminally ill. After her husband and mother died, Nancy went back to school; she now works for the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services, helping other family caregivers.
“Caregiving was really hard on me. A lot of times I hated it and a lot of times I was so thankful to be doing it.”
Debbie, age 63, is a single mom for 15-year-old Leah and runs a real estate business from home. When Leah was born, Debbie’s parents, Irvine and Harriet, moved in to help. As their health subsequently failed, Debbie cared for her parents. She recalls how Leah would help her “Pop Pop” walk around the driveway, would sing and dance to cheer up her grandparents, and helped even more as she got older. Both Irvine and Harriet are now deceased.
“I read an article about caregiving and it reminded me that no matter how frustrated I felt, my mother was frustrated even more!”
Because she didn’t have flexibility at work, Trequita, age 58, retired to care for her mother, Evelyn, who had a stroke as well as vascular problems and COPD. Her health deteriorated over eight years, and Evelyn moved in with her daughter. Trequita administered breathing treatments and medications and bathed Evelyn every day. A home health aide visited daily to assist.
“They have been awesome parents throughout my life, and it’s an honor and privilege to be there for them — the best daughter I can be.”
Luz, age 47, retired early from UPS and moved back to the U.S. Virgin Islands to care for her parents, Terecita and Angel. They both had strokes, which affected their mobility and memory, and require round-the-clock care. After hurting her back when lifting her mom incorrectly, Luz started attending a caregiving class for help. She is living off her savings.
“You’re a caregiver, you’re a cheerleader … everything rolled into one. Anything to keep a smile on her face and her mind off her problems.”
Stuart, age 73 and a retired television program director, provided 24/7 care for his wife of 51 years, Carol, when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer and underwent aggressive chemotherapy. He helped Carol stay busy and engaged. As one of her projects, Carol made over 100 head covers for cancer patients, donating them anonymously. After she passed away, the Valley Quilters’ Guild and the Harman Senior Center continued this effort in her memory.
“We were able to share the burdens. We were also able to share the joy of spending time with her.”
For two-month increments over two years, Bill, age 67, and his wife, Cathy, 59, cared for his mother, Nancy, who had dementia and required constant supervision. They shared caregiving responsibilities with Bill’s siblings. Cathy asked for this portrait to be painted of Bill and Nancy.
“If I can get the people I care about to laugh out loud, it fires my engines and I’m good to go!”
At age 50, Sherrie, who has multiple sclerosis, exemplifies the sandwich generation. She helps care for her adult son, Erik, who was diagnosed with aggressive Tourette’s syndrome at age 11 and suffers from Lyme disease. Sherrie also assists her parents, Phil and Joan, who live more than two hours away, visiting overnight regularly to share stories, cook dinner and help with paperwork.
“When I’d finish getting her ready for bed, she’d look at me and say, ‘I really appreciate the things you’re doing for me.’”
Tatiana, now age 26, was raised by her grandparents, Julester and Laverne. Following Laverne’s death, Julester started showing signs of dementia. As a young teenager, Tatiana began caring for her grandmother, eventually taking over all the homemaking tasks as well as personal care, for 10 years. She counted on support provided by the Sheridan Senior Center and now works there while also attending college.
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