I had just finished my weight routine at the gym Saturday morning when I sat down in the lobby area to wait for my wife, who was finishing up in a fitness class. I had my earphones on, listening to music, and pulled out my phone to busy myself by checking email and then moving on to that biggest time suck of all, Facebook.
I had only been there about a minute when I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I looked up and around, and found myself face to face with a woman, probably 20 years my senior. I did not know her. She was stooped over in her stance, holding a cane in her right hand.
I removed my earphones to see what she needed. Her face was less than six inches from my own, and she tapped me two more times on the shoulder and then indicated toward my phone with her right hand. She said, in a tone I would describe as serious yet not harsh, “You can’t read here. You can’t read here.” Then she smiled. I wasn’t sure whether she was joking or not, but assured her I wasn’t reading, but was rather “just looking at the pictures.” Her message delivered and acknowledged, she shuffled on, aided by her husband, who I had not initially noticed. He gave me a sympathetic smile, and a look that told me I should not take what she had just said too seriously.
It was a look I’ve seen before. It was a look I instantly recognized.
I’ve seen that look on the faces of longtime customers back in my food service days; from spouses who found themselves caring for their dementia affected partners. I saw that look on my sister, and father, as well as other caretakers who saw my mother through her battle with Alzheimer’s.
I had probably given that look a time or two myself, back when she was still alive.
As I watched this elderly couple walk together down the hall, him holding her gently, talking to her and guiding her, I could not help but think of the challenges he no doubt faces on an almost hourly basis. His was the life of the personal caregiver, a position and responsibility that was simultaneously thankless and rewarding; all while being one of the most stressful positions you could possibly imagine. I think at times it just might be the loneliest job on the planet.
The encounter made me think about how little we talk about the personal caregiver in workers’ compensation. We probably don’t think about them enough, either.
The personal caregiver in workers’ comp is not normally dealing with age related dementia, but their challenges are no less daunting. The people of whom I speak are the spouses and partners of catastrophically injured workers, who now often bear the brunt of routine care when their loved one returns home. The stress associated with life altering injuries is not limited to just the patient themselves; no, the impact runs deep through families and friendships. I worry at times that we don’t pay enough attention to those “other” accident victims.
And I worry that we miss critical opportunities when that happens.
We’ve been talking more over recent years about the words we use. Many of us are trying to bring a more human touch for the injured workers’ in our systems care. The somewhat clinically sounding Advocacy Based Claims Model is probably the best representation of this effort. That model does take a broader, more holistic approach to injury management. Still, if we expanded that renewed focus just a bit more to include the spouse or partner now thrust into the role of caregiver, we could probably improve outcomes even further. It is not enough to just ask the injured party, “How are you feeling today?” We should also be asking that of the person who is helping to pick up the pieces at home.
Strengthening the support structure can only help improve the quality of life for those in need. And sometimes just acknowledging the stresses can do a lot to help that process along.
We should talk more about the caregiver – and do more to acknowledge and assist those left in the wake of a catastrophic injury. They are already partners in the outcome. We should treat them as such in the process.