Margaret Stawowy: A Huge Hole in the Safety Net

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Margaret Stawowy

Margaret Stawowy, like most, wanted to keep her mother in familiar surroundings when she began to decline. It was easier said than done.

For five years, I provided care for my mother who experienced dementia. My mother lived in low-income senior housing, and I wanted to keep her in her familiar setting for as long as possible. I thought surely there were programs and safety nets for people on limited incomes like my mother. We lived in one of the most affluent counties in California. I quickly realized that I was both her “program” and “safety net.”

As a person with a full-time job, this was a daunting responsibility. Working with a non-profit social worker, I tried to get my mother the assistance she needed since I couldn’t be with her all day. For more than a year, I was unsuccessful until another social worker in private practice showed me what I was doing wrong and helped me apply successfully. If somebody like me with a college degree couldn’t apply without professional direction, how were struggling elders without children to assist them faring?

Towards the end, when my mother experienced debilitating falls, when I realized I could no longer keep her safe, when her behavior became erratic and violent, I implored her doctor for advice. She recommended my mother for hospice. Then and only then, my mother and I were able to get more services, otherwise unavailable.

I learned firsthand, that a large part of our healthcare system depends upon family members to provide unpaid caregiving, with scant direction or meaningful support.

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Caregiving is an equity issue as it is largely unpaid or underpaid, particularly by women, and often by women of color. As a nation, we are failing our vulnerable elders with our spotty, haphazard approaches to caregiving. Unless we improve, we can expect no better for ourselves in our own time of need.

With a Perspective, this is Margaret Stawowy.

Margaret Stawowy is a librarian, poet, and poetry editor living in Marin.