In Nashville — and across the country — the number of chronically ill people who need round-the-clock care is rising. The vast majority are baby boomers, and most of the people looking after them aren’t much younger. One local nonprofit offers caregivers a break from their duties — at no cost. Yet despite the growing need, the organization says most families in Davidson County don’t know about the service.
Susie Reed met her husband when they were in their 40s. He was a lively, inveterate prankster. By the time Reed retired last year Ron was battling cancer and several illnesses that had robbed him of his mobility.
Still, she planned on taking care of him herself. So when she first heard of the Tennessee Respite Coalition, which sends senior volunteers to give caregivers a break, Reed brushed it off.
"At the time I thought, I’m not going to need that," says Reed. "But then I quickly realized that yes, I needed help."
Because looking after the chronically ill — without relief — often brings on so-called caregiver syndrome. The stress can lead to exhaustion, depression, even serious physical problems.
It’s also financially draining. Some 40 million Americans have to look after a relative or a friend. According to the AARP, that’s nearly half a trillion dollars in unpaid care every year.
All of those factors weighed on Reed. But because her job was also her social life, to her the isolation was the hardest part. So she ended up calling the Respite Coalition.
"I worked for 41 years. And it was really hard not to have friends, so at least every now and then I can have lunch with a friend, kind of keep in touch," says Reed. "It really keeps me sane."
Reed now has someone come twice a week to spend time with her husband while she goes out.
The Respite Coalition currently has 15 volunteers in Davidson County. They are not medical professionals, but retirees who get a little money for their time.
Mandy Hansen, who heads the senior volunteer program, says what the full-time caregivers do with the respite they receive is entirely up to them. It could even be 40 hours a week.
"They can use it by going to the store, they can work, they can take an art class," says Hansen. "Our volunteers are certified, they’ve had extended background checks, ongoing education. They can leave with the peace of mind knowing that our volunteers are there to give them that break, a safe break."
The Coalition gets most of its money from Tennessee taxpayers and currently serves just over 40 families in the area.
It also runs a statewide program that gives full-time live-in caregivers $600 a year, to either help them take a break or use it for their loved one.
The nonprofit says it could offer respite to more people — if they knew about the service. And the Coalition isn’t afraid of having waiting lists, because even that helps build their case for more money and volunteers.