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According to a recent AARP report, 40 million Americans are family caregivers. They collectively provide 37 billion hours of unpaid caregiving each year, estimated to be valued at a whopping $470 billion. The average American caregiver is 49 years old, but one quarter are between 18 and 34.

In November, we celebrated National Family Caregivers Month, but these selfless family members must not be forgotten during the holiday season. The music we hear at this time of year only reinforces the isolation, loneliness and loss of freedom felt by caregivers who are always on call.

The Rev. Gregory Johnson, co-founder of the New York City Family Caregiver Coalition, hosts a series of YouTube videos titled You Are Not Alone. Throughout this very sensitively delivered series, he references the family as the ”silent patient” and gives permission to caregivers to take care of their physical, emotional and spiritual health. This attention should not be viewed as a gift to caregivers, but as a necessity.

Dr. John Burton, the director of Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education, calls the friends and family of the ill or injured the real “saints” in health care. They are the backbone of our health care system.

What gifts would mean the most for these unsung heroes? Think about what caregivers are missing the most. I suggest “me-time” and companionship. Time away from caregiving responsibilities is essential to their health. Such a gift does not need to be an elaborate plan. It may be as simple as sitting with the loved one while the caregiver takes the time for a leisurely walk, for a relaxing bath or shower, to read a book in another room, or go to a movie for a couple of hours.

Rosalyn Carter Institute

It could also mean an hour’s visit for conversation and laughter about the twists and turns that brought lives to where they are today. Simplicity in giving is reflected in Mother Teresa’s words: “It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into the doing.” Gifting one’s time to provide respite or conversation does not cost the giver in dollars. The value, however, is priceless.

Caregiving is the gift that keeps on giving. The opportunity arises during the holidays to give the gift of oneself to the selfless, unpaid family caregiver who gives to another every day of the year. The gift of time and conversation knows no boundaries.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who founded a Georgia-based institute for caregiving that bears her name, reminds us that there are four kinds of people in this world: “those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers. Caregiving is universal.”

– Image courtesy Creative Commons and Mic445

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