November - National Family Caregiver's Month by Kristi
Have you ever provided care to someone you love? Children...grandchildren...emerging young adults? Maybe aging parents...siblings in need...extended family? What about neighbors, friends or even colleagues? My guess is just about every one of you has cared for someone you love in one way or another.
November is National Family Caregiver’s month. I happen to know there are A LOT of caregivers out there. Actually, there are about 43.5 caregivers who “have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months.” - National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.
I have provided care to many people over the course of my lifetime, yet, one caring relationship has actually changed the course of my life.
On a regular day in June 2010 my younger brother called me. It was a call no one ever wants to receive. He shared that he wanted to end his life. While our family knew that he was having a hard time managing, we didn’t realize how bad things had become. He had routine surgery in 2008 that left him in chronic pain. Up until that point he had done a pretty good job managing his depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I knew enough to ask some hard questions. Do you have a plan? Do you have the means to execute your plan? Can you hang on until I can get to you? He shared that just knowing I would come to be with him calmed him down.
What followed was four years of being one of my brother’s long-distance, mental illness caregivers. My family and I supported him through a difficult divorce and custody battle, finding a new home and transitioning him to single life.
As a long-distance caregiver, it was all about listening. Really listening. I always thought I was a good listener, after all, I’m a trained Stephen Ministry Leader, trained to provide one on one caring support. Yet, when it came to my brother and suicidal ideations and unmedicated mental health challenges, I was challenged in new ways. What did my brother need most? No judging, unconditional love and a caring ear.
I spent countless hours on the phone through those four years listening and trying hard not to solve any problems but empower him to be able to make the best decisions he could. There were plenty of times I didn’t agree or felt impatient with how long it took for him to execute his plans. There were also times I was angry – why was this so HARD? We did our best to celebrate progress and his achievements – no matter how small. Yet, it was still so hard to watch someone you love very much struggling – whether they can see it or not.
Ultimately, on May 30, 2014, I received a very different phone call. This time it wasn’t my brother calling for help, it was a detective calling to say that my brother had taken his life. I choose to think he ended his battle with mental illness. What we have come to understand is that no one wants to end their life…they want to end the pain.
Soon after the dust settled from my brother’s suicide, I had an idea. Surely, there had to be a better way to support someone you love with mental illness? The idea for Courage to Caregivers was born. As I began talking with family and friends to share my idea, I had a young ‘accelerator’ who loved my idea and encouraged me to move on it.
I am not a risk taker or natural entrepreneur…I’d say I stumbled into this through my deep love for my brother.
I started by talking to hundreds of community stakeholders to vet the idea for supporting mental illness caregivers. There are a few agencies who support caregivers, yet, I saw a new model with potential.
So, what’s the difference? Courage to Caregivers is entirely focused on the caregiver and their self-care. You see, while I was actively caregiving for my brother, I consistently put myself last. It was hard enough taking care of everyone else, let alone myself. I wasn’t making healthy meals, I didn’t make time for exercise and I quickly gained 40 pounds. Now, I’d love to ‘blame’ my brother for this weight gain, yet, it was my lack of self-care that got me into that mess.
At Courage to Caregivers we absolutely believe in the mantra to “put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you”. We know that self-care is the oxygen mask for the caregiver. The flight attendants message almost sounds selfish, doesn’t it? Yet, if it really were an accident, and you were to pass out, what good would you be to those around you? YOU matter.
Kristi Horner, Founder and Executive Director
Courage to Caregivers
Kristi graduated from Denison University with a BA in Economics. Throughout her career she has worked for a variety of nonprofits as Director of Special Events, Director of Volunteers and Director of Admissions.
In 2014, she lost her brother to suicide. She had been one of her brother’s mental illness long-distance caregivers for four years. He lived with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As someone who supported someone she loved very much, living with mental illness, she knew there had to be a better way to support mental illness caregivers and the idea for Courage to Caregivers was born!
Courage to Caregivers is a new nonprofit serving Northeast Ohio with the mission to provide hope, support, and courage to caregivers and loved ones of those living with mental illness. We are piloting three unique programs for one year including: One-to-One Caregiver Support, Support Groups and Breathing Meditation.
Connect with Kristi at Kristi at CourageToCaregivers.org