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March 28, 2019

By Carol Zernial

I don’t know everything. This statement would be met with no surprise and great agreement among my family and friends. There might also be a smirk on a few faces that I had miraculously discovered this fact.

In my younger days in school, I would be frustrated at not having mastered any subject even if I had never been exposed to it previously. In true Hermione Granger style, I expected to be an immediate expert and good at any subject. In the Harry Potter books. Hermione was indeed at the top of her class in academic subjects, but she was among the worst in her Quidditch “PE” class. She was unable to make her broomstick fly at all – much to her dismay. She was smart. How could she not be good at something?

If this seems familiar, it’s easy for us to fall into the ranks of caregivers who expect ourselves to magically know everything about caring for a loved one. Why? We think because we raised children, that caring for an adult must be similar. We think because of our professional expertise in medicine, social work, aging, business, accounting, basket weaving – you name it – it should make us a caregiving expert. We’re professionals after all. We think because we unconditionally love or deeply know the person for whom we are caring that we can anticipate and meet their needs.

Let’s be nice to ourselves and unpack this notion of automatically being an expert caregiver even if we’ve never done it before. First, the healthcare and social services systems in this country are fragmented and complicated with gaping holes of qualifying criteria. There is no “system” of long-term services and supports. We may further be confused by making assumptions of benefits, such as the routine misbelief that Medicare pays for long-term care. It doesn’t. It only pays for skilled care on a temporary basis after a hospital stay. Medicaid pays for long-term services, but a person must spend down to poverty to qualify. There are professional benefits counselors and geriatric care managers specifically because there is no way to know what we don’t know. And better choices come from better information.

Next, caregiving is complicated by our own experiences and relationships over the years. If we didn’t get along with a parent, we’re not going to suddenly like them more now that we are caring for them. Our devotion to a loved one can sometimes make us blind to the reality of their situation. How many of us didn’t want to see that a spouse or a parent was no longer the same person, unable to manage finances, or unsafe in their own home?

Finally, caregiving is an animal unto itself. It is not the same as raising children. The variables are vastly different: young versus old; increasing independence versus increasing frailty; acute colds and flu versus long-term chronic illness. What is the same are the love, dignity, respect and rewards. But we have to be careful to build those into our vocabulary and our actions. They don’t always come naturally.

The next time we think we are or should be the perfect caregiver automatically, let’s remember that we’re human and doing our best. We may not always be able to make our broomstick magically fly, but we can ask for the support of professionals who can give us a few tips in getting off the ground.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

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