I Have a Dream – How Caregivers Can Perform a Service for Their Loved One’s End-of-Life Wish

martin-luther-kingWhen Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 51 years ago, he was talking about a making a better future for African Americans.  In his honor, we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday this month with the “MLK Day of Service” where thousands of Americans across the country perform activities to make things better for others.

While there are many ways you can volunteer today, there is a service caregivers can perform for their loved one: Help fulfill their dream by achieving something on their bucket list.

The Dream Foundation

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When it comes to dreams, we all have our bucket list.  However, if you are battling a terminal illness, that bucket list seems even more precious but perhaps more elusive. Pain, immobility and money issues can dash these dreams and many give up their joy so they can focus their efforts on surviving.  But finding those moments of peace, reconciliation, validation and pleasure are part of life – no matter whether we are at the beginning, middle or end of our days.  One organization understands how important this is and grants real-life bucket list wishes to help caregivers help their loved ones achieve these end-of-life dreams.  Appropriately, it is called The Dream Foundation.

Seventeen years ago, Thomas Rollerson wanted to give his dying partner one last dream:  to go to the movies and see Mrs. Doubtfire starring his favorite actor, Robin Williams.  Seemingly a simple request, they set out for the move theater with water bottles to keep his loved one hydrated, a critical tool in abating the pain of his illness.  The theater asked the gentlemen to leave because you could not bring your own water into the theater. Rollerson, dedicated to helping his loved one see a last movie, called organizations dedicated to childhood dreams for terminal patients such as Make-A-Wish and the Starlight Foundation. All these organizations limited their help to children only and Rollerson was amazed to find no group granted adult wishes.

Undaunted, he contacted the movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, and was astounded yet grateful when they provided a copy of the film (since the movie was still in theaters it was not yet in video stores).  This experience galvanized Rollerson to help other caregivers fulfill the dreams of the adult loved one who has last wishes. Thus, The Dream Foundation was created in 1994.

To date, The Dream Foundation has fulfilled thousands of wishes for adults battling terminal illnesses including more than 2,500 dreams in 2013.  Rollerson is proud of the foundation’s success – one of the few and longest-operating nonprofit organizations to grant wishes nationwide for terminally ill adults and to not limit the wishes to those with certain diseases (for instance there are other groups who grant wishes for adult cancer patients).

“I had a network of contacts in the Hollywood and film community and I started reaching out to see how others could help and it grew from there,” says Rollerson.

As opposed to the over-the-top wishes we watch Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman enjoy in the movie, The Bucket List (such as an African safari, dining in Paris and riding motorcycles along the Great Wall of China) he says his favorite wishes granted are the simple ones:

  • The Dream Foundation hosted a 104-year-old’s birthday party and invited the dream recipient’s brother whom he had not seen in 40 years.
  • Another woman had never stayed in a first- class hotel so The Dream Foundation gave her a weekend stay at a five-star resort.
  • A 40-year-old man with lung cancer was granted a last wish by The Dream Foundation of a fly fishing trip with his young sons.
  • Another dream recipient was given a state-of-the-art hearing aid “so he could hear what his grandchildren were saying to him.”

“It’s the simple joys in life we take for granted that become so important as we face ‘the end’,” says Rollerson.  “I learn from each dream we’ve given and it has become a gift to me to give these dreams.”

Note:  This blog is adapted from A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care by Sherri Snelling.

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Volunteer to Help a Caregiver

Volunteers dreamstime_m_17430748 (2)To kick off National Volunteer Week, read my article for Huff Post 50 on 8 Ways You Can Volunteer to Help Caregivers.

December is the Season of Caring

Our blogs this month focus on how to have the caregiving conversation and how to volunteer to help caregivers in the spirit of the season!

Enlist Now to Help Veterans and Their Caregivers

They serve and they sacrifice – all for our freedom.  This Memorial Day, we remember those brave men and women who have lost their lives in conflicts and wars to guarantee our American way of life.  But, I will also be thinking about the 23 million living veterans of wars ranging from WWII to Operation Enduring Freedom and their 10 million family caregivers.  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, amazingly, seven million of these 10 million caregivers of veterans are veterans themselves. They deserve our thanks – and not just in lip service but in real service.

While we join our families and friends for the kick-off to the summer season this weekend – the BBQs, the pool parties, the store sales and blockbuster movies – I ask you to take time to talk to your family and friends about “enlisting” to help our veterans and their caregivers.  From Memorial Day until Veterans Day (November 11, 2012) – check out my 8 tips on how to support our veterans and their family caregivers.

To encourage your volunteerism, here are a few things you should know about these “bravehearts” – the caregivers of our veterans from a landmark study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and underwritten by UnitedHealth Foundation:

  • Veterans’ caregivers bear a higher burden than most caregivers, helping to manage emotional and physical conditions often for 10 years or longer.  In fact, compared to caregivers nationally, caregivers of veterans are twice as likely to be in their caregiving role for more than 10 years (30 percent vs. 15 percent).
  • Caregivers of veterans are overwhelmingly women (96 percent) who sacrifice their own health, work and family life.  These veteran’s caregivers have twice the levels of stress (88 percent) or depression (63 percent) than typical caregivers.
  • The study revealed that many veterans’ caregivers are younger – spouses of those having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) but also revealed that Baby Boomer parents are caring for their physically and emotionally injured adult children.  Sixty percent of these veterans are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 70 percent with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, and 29 percent with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Enlist Now – 8 Ways To Help Caregivers of Veterans This Year

1. United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – There are several opportunities to volunteer to support veterans and their caregivers through the federal government department dedicated to them.  In addition to donating time and money, there are organized Welcome Home Events happening at the local VA Medical Centers across the country, there is also President Obama’s United We Serve activities happening all summer long which include helping homeless veterans, becoming a volunteer driver to provide transportation to veterans and families to and from VA facilities and more.

2. Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) – dedicated to those who were injured since 9/11, WWP has an online community for its members to share stories and volunteer to help one another at My Care Crew.  If you know a caregiver of a wounded veteran you can start one of the free, private communities where volunteers can provide help and support or find an existing community and ask to join.

In addition, WWP has hosted numerous Caregiver Retreats where caregivers get a weekend away to relax, recharge and reconnect with other caregivers going through similar challenges, and they support a host of career training and employment opportunities for veterans and their spouses. Nominate a caregiver of a veteran or donate to support this wonderful respite break for a veteran’s caregiver.

WWP also has the Believe in Heroes™ campaign, a two-month long series of events from September 11 and November 11 where all Americans can show their support of veterans by hosting a Believe in Heroes party or supporting retailers and brands that support heroes or purchasing Believe in Heroes gear and apparel.

3. ReMIND – Stand Up for Heroes is the annual event held in November and coordinated by the Bob Woodruff Foundation to provide resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families.  Donate to the cause or buy tickets to the event through the ReMIND Web site.

4. Joining Forces – this is an initiative to encourage institutions, businesses and individuals to do more to help military families that is championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President. There are numerous ways to get involved including:

  • The YMCA, National Military Family Association and Sierra Club Foundation offered free summer camp to 7,000 military kids at camps in 35 states.
  • Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club will guarantee a job at a nearby store for military family members who have been transferred to another part of the country.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will hold 100 hiring fairs around the country to help 50,000 veterans and military spouses find jobs outside government.

5. National Military Family AssociationOperation Purple Healing Adventures is a family camp experience for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) military families that has given hope and healing to more than 45,000 military children and teens since 2004.  You can become a camp counselor or donate funds for camp activities.

6. Project Sanctuary – this non-profit organization has a mission to provide therapeutic, curative, supportive and recreational activities to veterans, active military personnel, their spouses and children in a leisure environment and has been recognized by Joining Forces as one of the top 5 veterans and families non-profit organizations.

7. Fisher House – The Fisher House™ Foundation donates comfort homes, built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers that are a home away from home for patients who are receiving long term care at major military hospitals and VA medical centers.  There is at least one Fisher House at every major military medical center to assist families in need.  The Fisher House program serves more than 17,000 families annually, and have made available over four million days of lodging to family members since the program originated in 1990.  You can donate to support the operations of Fisher Houses or volunteer as staff for a local Fisher House by visiting the web site.

8. Volunteer Match – If you are not sure where to start, go to this online site that can match you to various local veterans organizations and events.

God bless our troops, our veterans and their family caregivers.  And, on this Memorial Day (and every day) – thank you for your service, your courage and your sacrifices.

Note:  Today’s blog is dedicated to the veterans in my life – my step-father who is a Korean War Veteran and proud Navy man, my late grandfather who was an Army WWII veteran and my brother’s good friend, Major Tai Le, who has done two tours in Iraq and has returned to us in California where he is now at Camp Pendleton after being assigned to the Pentagon in the JAG office.

Help! I Need Somebody

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Almost 50 years ago, the Beatles hit Number One on the Billboard charts with the song Help! – a perfect anthem for this week.   On April 15-21, we officially commemorate National Volunteer Week, and I am giving a “shout out” to those 65 million family caregivers nationwide who essentially have volunteered to care for a loved one who is sick, getting older or has a disability.

However, this is a time for us all to think about volunteering.  In honor of our nation’s caregivers, what can you do to help them?  Read on about the ways you can volunteer to help a caregiving friend, volunteer for caregiving organizations and why caregivers are more likely than the general population to become a volunteer when their caregiving tour of duty has ended.

Help the Caregiver in Your Life

It might be your mom, your brother, a sister-in-law, a co-worker, a neighbor or good friend but more than likely if you start asking those within your circle of family and friends – you will find a family caregiver.  Two important things to know about caregivers:

  1. They often feel stressed, overwhelmed and suffer from burn-out from their caregiving duties which can ultimately impact their own health and well-being.
  2. They often feel alone in their caregiving journey which can lead to depression.

Here is what you can do to help:

Create a Community of Care – there are a few online sites where can you create private communities around the caregiver.  One of my favorites is Lotsa Helping Hands.  This free service allows you to send emails out to the caregiver’s inner circle asking them to sign up to be volunteers. There is a sophisticated calendar tool where you list tasks for things to help the caregiver.  It might be picking up the caregiver’s kids at school because she is at the doctor’s office with her mom, or dropping off a meal for her family because she is at the nursing home that night visiting her loved one or sitting with her dad so she can get her hair done or go to the gym.  What I like is the focus is on helping the caregiver.  By giving that caregiver a “break,” also known as respite, this type of volunteering is a personal gift that every caregiver needs.

Volunteer for a Caregiving Organization

There are numerous organizations which offer an opportunity to get involved in helping caregivers in your local community.  Whether it is home meal delivery, transportation needs, raising funds through a walk-a-thon – these are just a few things you can sign up for which support the caregivers where you live.

Here are some Web sites to check out in the various areas of caregiver support:

Home meal deliveries:  More than eight million caregivers live long distance from their loved one and cannot be there every day to ensure they eat properly or at all.  Meals on Wheels has more than 2.5 million volunteers who pack and deliver 1 million meals every day to those who are homebound – many of them over the age of 60.  Their latest campaign is for Mother’s Day – volunteer to deliver a meal, donate $7 for a meal for a mom, or send a greeting card from their Web site.  Meals on Wheels is about more than food – read my blog on Soul Food.

Transportation and Senior Driving Safety: Getting around is another way to help caregivers and their loved ones.  Check these sites for becoming a volunteer driver:  National Center for Senior Transportation, CarFit,  ITNAmerica

Faith-based organizations: Many local churches, synagogues and mosques offer support groups and other ways to help caregivers.  An inter-faith non-profit organization which has a plethora of volunteering opportunities is National Volunteer Caregiving Network (formerly known as Faith in Action Network).  Typical services include transportation, grocery shopping, minor home repairs, friendly visiting, bill paying, light housekeeping and respite for the caregiver.

Hospice care:  When facing end-of-life situations, there is an amazing network of volunteers for hospice support.  More than 460,000 Americans volunteer every year to bring comfort and peace to grieving families – and, 20 percent of these volunteers are new to hospice care.  Hospice volunteers find it personal gratifying and emotionally fulfilling to help families through what they call this “living” rather than “dying” experience.  In fact, to de-institutionalize hospice care, facilities who receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement must have 5 percent of the hours of care provided be performed by volunteers.

Former Caregivers As Volunteers

You would think once a caregiver has been through their journey of caring for a loved one, they are ready to relax and take a long break.  Not so according to a study published in the Journal of Gerontology that found that older adult caregivers were more likely to be volunteers than non-caregivers.

The study found that caregivers become “embedded in networks” once they become a caregiver, thus making them more likely to continue to seek these social interactions with like minds.  They also have a routine of performing tasks for others – something they do not abandon even after caregiving ends.  Thus, caregivers are more likely to become involved in social networking and organizational memberships.  And, they may become very passionate about a cause which affected their loved one – great high profile examples are David Hyde Pierce who is a tireless advocate for finding a cure to the Alzheimer’s disease that affected his father and grandfather, and Holly Robinson Peete who created the HollyRod Foundation to support families facing Parkinson’s disease and autism which affected her father and son respectively.

Also, older adults find volunteering an integral part of their desire to give back to society (a strong trait that ties us Baby Boomers together). Thus, caregivers uniquely combine their “obligatory” activity (caregiving) with later “discretionary activities” (volunteering).

One way for former caregivers to get involved in their communities by helping other caregivers is through the National Family Caregivers Association Caregiver Community Action Network (CCANers).  This caregiving “mentor/volunteers” network helps to spread the word about caregiving through interaction with private and public agencies especially during November’s National Family Caregiving Month.

Make a plan to “up your cultural capital” and care for the caregivers.  Get up and out and volunteer to support caregivers this week (and every week).